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Health, Science & Tech

Pitt, CMU and UPMC Announce Multimillion Dollar Health Care Data Research Initiative

Liz Reid
90.5 WESA

University of Pittsburgh chancellor Patrick Gallagher calls the volume of healthcare data in the United States “staggering.”

“(It is) fast approaching a zettabyte,” Gallagher said, referencing the equivalent of one trillion gigabytes. “Even the terminology doesn’t make sense to many of us.”

Gallagher made the comments Monday at a joint news conference with Carnegie Mellon University and UPMC. The three institutions have announced a multi-million dollar collaborative initiative to harness vast amounts of health care data to “revolutionize healthcare and wellness.”

“The X-rays you get when you go see a physician, functional MRIs, medical test results, disease statistics, genomic profiles, prescription and over-the-counter medication sales data,” said CMU President Subra Suresh. “Even results from wearable fitness devices.”

Suresh said the Pittsburgh Health Data Initiative will involve faculty, students and researchers from varied disciplines at both CMU and Pitt, as well as partners in industry and government.

UPMC CEO Jeffrey Romoff said the health care giant will put up $10-20 million a year “depending on how the projects unfold,” but that right now, it’s difficult to imagine what those projects might look like.

“I will be very disappointed, and I’m sure Subra (Suresh) and Pat (Gallagher) will as well, if five years from now, the project looks anything like we just described,” Romoff said. “If it does, we have not been as innovative, we have not been as creative, we have not been as … explosive as we need to be.”

What the three men described are devices that can track how well a patient is recovering from an organ transplant, apps that can take the place of face-to-face doctor visits, and physicians who have enough data to suggest one lifestyle change that could prolong a patient’s life.

Another challenge is dealing with an unwieldy network of electronic medical records, which includes various proprietary systems that often don’t speak to one another, and sometimes create more work for medical professionals.

“The interfaces that doctors and patients experience are still kind of clumsy,” Gallagher said. “I think a lot of the innovation is going to be how do we make that a natural interface between the people in this system, because we are talking about health, and the machines and technology that are going to support those people.”

Romoff said the goal is to bypass those systems altogether, by harnessing new forms of data that go beyond the electronic medical record. In fact, Romoff is confident that within 10 years, health care will not look anything like it does today, and that the majority of care will be accessible through handheld devices.

“Just like we’re reading about Google’s driverless cars — and my colleagues at UPMC will now kill me for saying this — we will be thinking about doctorless health care,” Romoff said.

Romoff didn’t mean that physicians would no longer be involved in health care, but that the ways in which patients interact with medical professionals will be drastically different.

In addition to revolutionizing health care, Romoff, Gallagher, and Suresh said the initiative will help bolster Pittsburgh’s ongoing resurgence after the collapse of the steel industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto applauded the institutions. Peduto said such an initiative is in keeping with Pittsburgh’s legacy, adding that it wasn’t steel that built Pittsburgh, but innovation.

“Today we live off a new economy that’s based on that same principle, and all those parts are here,” Peduto said.

“Imagine how great it must be to be a mayor of a city to see all those parts come together, and be able to see how they can work to transform not only lives, not only the industries they serve, not only this city and this region, but the world.”

The project will initially include two existing research and development centers: the Center for Machine Learning and Health at CMU and the Center for Commercial Applications of Healthcare Data at Pitt.

Gallagher, Suresh, and Romoff said commercialization of technologies that come out of the initiative will be integral to its success and long-term sustainability.

Additional funding for the Pittsburgh Health Alliance will come from Pitt and CMU as well as grants and private philanthropy.