Pitt, CMU and UPMC hope to remake health care via new big data alliance
March 16, 2015 11:40 PM
Jeffrey Romoff, CEO and president of UPMC, says the partnership has the potential to unleash “the next generation of health care, the next generation of IT, and the next generation of Pittsburgh.”
Through a new alliance, officials envision health care that will greatly aided by computerized diagnoses, by biometric data gathered on smartphones and transmitted in real time, and by a patient’s own genome.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto jokes about his low number of steps on his fitness app at a press conference announcing a new alliance between Pitt, UPMC and CMU to transform health care through "big data."
By Bill Toland / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh is making a big bet on big data.
UPMC, the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University on Monday announced the formation of the Pittsburgh Health Data Alliance to “revolutionize health care and wellness” by using data to detect potential outbreaks as well as create health care innovations that will spawn spinoff companies.
The clinical goal, the leaders of the three institutions said, is to remake health care so that it is at once more computerized, yet more personalized, using millions of gigabytes of accumulated health records to predict and treat patients’ health issues in a manner far more specific than is possible today.
And the business development goal, the leaders said, is no less than a Pittsburgh-based “moonshot” for health information technology, one that could make Pittsburgh the global epicenter for such research.
If the alliance unfolds as outlined, it someday could rival the scope of the nation’s largest university-led data-sharing projects (such as the ongoing Dartmouth Atlas health policy research partnership with Dartmouth College) and its biggest artificial clinical intelligence projects (such as the IBM Watson team’s foray into the health care realm).
The partnership has the potential to unleash “the next generation of health care, the next generation of IT, and the next generation of Pittsburgh,” said UPMC president and CEO Jeffrey Romoff during Monday’s news conference. The city’s three leading research institutions hope to create “an extraordinary amount of opportunity and wealth,” he said.
The alliance, which was formally unveiled at a briefing at the Hillman Cancer Center in Shadyside, is being funded by UPMC for the next six years, at perhaps $10 million to $20 million a year, Mr. Romoff said, depending on the nature of the research projects that emerge. An additional “several hundred million dollars” in funding is coming from existing grants at the three institutions, and each institution will also contribute dozens of researchers, plus experts from outside universities.
CMU president Subra Suresh said that, despite collecting health data and insurance records on nearly each and every American for the past several years, the country has little to show for it, partly because that data exists in so many silos, controlled by competing companies. Sifting through that data “is too much for the capacity of this generation” of scientists and clinicians, he said. A partnership dedicated to making sense of those numbers could “move society forward.”
Pitt chancellor Patrick Gallagher said the partnership would “bring together some of the greatest minds to tackle [one] of the greatest problems” faced by medicine.
The Pittsburgh Health Data Alliance initially will have two research and development centers: the Center for Machine Learning and Health led by CMU professor Eric Xing, and the Center for Commercial Applications of Healthcare Data, led by Pitt professor and department chair Michael Becich. The commercialization arm of UPMC, called UPMC Enterprises, will lead efforts to bring the ideas to market.
None of the leaders who spoke about the partnership Monday offered much in the way of predictions, mainly because the new technologies are so hard to visualize.
Mr. Romoff said he envisioned “doctor-less health care,” which is not to say there will be no doctors in the future, but they will be greatly aided by computerized diagnoses, by biometric data gathered on smartphones and transmitted in real time, and by a patient’s own genome. It could result in a new form of “artificial intelligence,” he said.
The daily headlines that consume so many Pittsburghers, mainly about the level of access Highmark customers have at UPMC hospitals, “are all dwarfed by the impact” of the research partnership, Mr. Romoff said.
Mr. Xing suggested that in a “doctor-less” society each patient will actually have “thousands of doctors,” because the treating physician will have so many similar health cases to draw on.
Mr. Gallagher said Pitt, CMU and UPMC have a chance to remake the “imperfect interface” that is now at the heart of today’s health care experience — you get sick, you go to a doctor. In the future, the interface could be reversed, with doctors and computers knowing what’s about to go wrong in a patient, or in a population of patients, before they know it themselves.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald noted that “eds and meds” have been the bulwark of the Pittsburgh economy in the wake of big steel and said that Monday’s announcement was built upon that scaffolding.
“It’s here,” Mr. Peduto said. “This isn’t George Jetson. It’s now. It’s reality.”
The universities and UPMC acknowledged that security of personal health information is a paramount concern. For research purposes, clinical data is usually scrubbed of personal identifiers, but when devices are gathering and sending data from smartphones and other wearable technologies, the potential for a breach is heightened.
Paul Alexander Clark, founder and CEO of Curate.Health, a Tennessee-based data analytics and mobile health company, said that UPMC, Pitt and CMU will need to be patient with the new partnership. It might take a decade or more for the technologies created to take root and effect change.
“This is not a new concept in the business world. ... There’s a lot of data out there,” and there are larger health data-sharing alliances, too, said Mr. Clark, a Pitt graduate. Hospital chains, multistate health insurers and universities have launched their own data warehouses in recent years.
“The important [thing] here is what you do with that data in order to drive value,” Mr. Clark said. “The major difference-maker here is the computer science and machine learning capabilities of CMU and Pitt. ... Application of [machine] learning to a specific health care population is the biggest leap — more significant than simply the ‘big data’ part.”
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