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An Interview with Michael Blum, M.D., Director of UCSF’s Center for Digital Health Innovation

November 22, 2015
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Hopes to pilot Cisco interoperability platform at UCSF sometime in 2016

Besides opening innovation centers, health systems are increasingly forming partnerships with commercial organizations to develop technology solutions. For instance, in September Boston-based Partners HealthCare announced a $30 million population health management strategic initiative with Salt Lake City-based healthcare data warehousing and analytics vendor Health Catalyst. Likewise, in October the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) announced an ambitious plan to Cisco announced this week an initiative to jointly develop an interoperability platform for sharing healthcare information among multiple entities. 

Last Friday I had a chance speak with Michael Blum, M.D., UCSF’s associate vice chancellor for informatics and director of its Center for Digital Health Innovation, about the Cisco deal. He stressed that it wasn’t established to sovle specific issues that UCSF was facing in its own clinical setting.

“It was more to address global interoperability problems, and the barriers they are causing to effective development in the digital health space overall,” Blum said.  He did say UCSF is experiencing some obvious barriers rolling out its accountable care network. “It was pretty obvious that we were going to have to build a bunch of infrastructure to overcome interoperability issues for clinical purposes,” he said, “and then in the more advanced digital health spaces there was really very little progress. That started the discussions.”

Cisco and UCSF are establishing a collaborative center at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus to test and scale an interoperability platform across different devices, IT systems and software.

Although it may not have a big name in the health IT space yet, Cisco already has a tremendous amount of technology assets that do this type of data transfer, data liquidity -- analytics, compute -- in other industries, and it only made sense to bring those assets into the healthcare space, he said.

Besides, he added, Cisco already has a huge presence in the hardware space. “They are in everyone’s data centers, and in the wireless space, unified communications and in telehealth,” Blum said, “so they have always had a big footprint on the technology side. They have evolved as a company to focus more on their software and services assets. They have developed significant businesses in the software and analytics spaces outside of healthcare. Those assets could really be an important part of the ecosystem within healthcare, with some additional work.” He said UCSF hopes to collaborate with Cisco, but also with other innovators on this platform. “The idea is to create an ecosystem of partners to work and create necessary standards and semantics and ontology to create interoperability, working with others who have been in this space for a long time, including people working on the FHIR standard, SMART on FHIR, and the Argonaut Project.”

Although the details have not been revealed yet, the platform involves taking the application programming interface (API) approach that others are working on, Blum said “as well as much smoother, more repeatable data binding within large healthcare organizations so they can connect their electronic resources onto this interoperability platform without having to reinvent the wheel each time.”

Where groups have been successful, like Argonaut and SMART on FHIR, UCSF wants to leverage what they have done, and bring them into the collaboration.

There are other groups and commercial entities that have carved out a space of connecting third-party devices such as Fitbits and other sensors. “Those companies aggregate data into a cloud that is theirs, but the data has no way of moving into the clinical care space or for the patient to be able to do anything sophisticated with it,” Blum said. One goal of the platform being developed with Cisco is to allow the data to move around and create the opportunity to aggregate it, compute, do analytics, provide feedback, and offer content to individuals or providers at the point of care. “The platform creates the infrastructure that allows that and the ecosystem that others can start contributing data to.  This is not just a data integration layer. It is also a platform that allows cloud compute on it as well.”

He said UCSF is getting better at working through the intellectual property negotiations in partnerships with commercial entities. “We have a collaboration with Samsung and several other commercial entities, so we have gotten some experience on how an academic center can collaborate with a commercial partner and how we can work around IP issues, so all the IP you contribute you retain, but IP created gets shared.” 

UCSF also recently announced a partnership with healthcare communication technology company Voalte to develop Voalte Story, a product based on CareWeb, a clinician-facing interactive patient wall that caregivers may access to post and link texts or alarms to a specific patient. Voalte said Voalte Story uses “enterprise social-based communication” to drive interaction in a format similar to social networks. By using common social media symbols like @ and #, caregivers can reference a patient, care-team member, or other staff when communicating about a specific alarm or text message.

Blum said that since the Cisco announcement, there has been interest in participation from large and small companies.  “I originally was concerned that people would be concerned about who had what pieces, but everyone is looking at it collaboratively,” Blum said.  “This could create the opportunity to finally tackle this problem that has been such a huge barrier to progress in healthcare.”