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Expert Panel Focuses on Digital Health and Patients' Needs

TVO Innovation Series kicks off with discussion of how technology can better serve the health care system.

BOSTON - The rapid proliferation of technology - the widespread impact of the cloud, of mobile devices, of on-line patient communities and of data, big and small -- has made it both an opportune and essential time to talk about the role of digital communications in the health care arena. But, as became apparent during a recent panel discussion at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), no amount of technology or data can replace the human touch: doctors and computers need to work in tandem.

"Technology, smartly deployed, can free up providers to do what they do best, which is to care for patients," said Mark Chalek, Chief of Business Ventures in BIDMC's Technology Ventures Office and moderator for "Digital Health and Patients' Needs," the inaugural program of the TVO Innovation Series, held on September 27.

Bringing together BIDMC Chief Information Officer John Halamka, MD; Alexandra Drane, founder and chair of the board of the Eliza Corporation; Nina Nashif, managing director of Sandbox Industries and founder of Healthbox; and Graham Gardner, MD, CEO of Kyruus, the thought-provoking discussion ranged from the crucial need for patient data in the era of health care reform to the challenge of protecting patient privacy; the importance of creating and managing the massive system necessary to enable health care providers to better share data; and ideas for new products and services, including "Zagat-type" guides to help patients learn about providers and "eHarmony- like" websites that could create relationships between patients and health care providers based on shared preferences.

BIDMC has long been ahead of the pack when it comes to effectively using information technology, as noted by Keynote Speaker Kevin Tabb, MD, BIDMC President and CEO, and a faculty member in the medical center's Division of Clinical Informatics. As Tabb reminded the audience, it was 40 years ago that BIDMC established the Clinical Informatics division, a visionary endeavor that helped pave the way for other IT innovations, including the use of Patient Site and the Provider Order Entry (POE) system. Most recently, he noted, BIDMC was the first health care institution in the country to attest to meaningful use, and was recently named the country's Number One Technology Innovator by Information Week magazine, ahead of such corporate giants as Boeing and Procter & Gamble.

However, he added that the health care industry is changing at an unbelievable pace. "Today we're forced by the market and by our patients to think about things differently," he pointed out. "We need to think about patients across a continuum of care, including after they leave the hospital and before they get here." And, adding what would become the theme of the day's discussion, Tabb noted, "We need to go beyond thinking of people as patients and think of people as people."

The explosion of investment in the health care IT/digital health arena - more than a billion dollars this year in venture capital alone - is driven by opportunity and need.

"This is the perfect storm for innovation," said BIDMC's Halamka. "In less than two weeks, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is expected to go live with its state-wide health information exchange." This will electronically connect hundreds of thousands of providers throughout the state and enable doctors, patients and third-party providers to send and receive data, moving lab results, prescriptions for medications and all manner of images and other diagnostics from place to place. Echoing Tabb's introductory remarks, Halamka pointed out, "In order to survive in the new world of accountable care organizations doctors and hospitals will be forced to pool data resources, looking at continuity of care across the lifetime of patients." And as Eliza Corporation's Drane noted, the industry has to recognize that humans do what humans do best and computers do what computers do best, a point that is often forgetten when companies are trying to solve these big issues.

"Our conversation started with the cloud, with electronic medical records, with I Pads and smart phones and somehow we ended up back in the neighborhood, talking to patients where they live and talking to families," Chalek concluded. "It seems that's where digital technologies and patient needs collide, and where we need to tie in together with caregivers so everyone's on the same team. It's a great challenge and a great opportunity."