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Analyzing Blockchain’s Evolution in Healthcare: Two Experts Dive into the Details

August 15, 2018
by Rajiv Leventhal, Managing Editor
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Two healthcare leaders at KPMG believe that blockchain activity in healthcare will ramp up in the next 12 to 24 months

Earlier this year, five prominent healthcare organizations—Humana, MultiPlan, Quest Diagnostics, and UnitedHealth Group’s Optum and UnitedHealthcare—announced they would be launching a blockchain-based pilot program with the aim to improve healthcare data quality and reduce administrative costs. The organizations said they would be specifically examining how the technology could help ensure that the most current healthcare provider information is available in health plan provider directories.

While many more details of this initiative are not yet known, this announcement has opened the eyes of other healthcare IT leaders who have become increasingly curious about this emerging technology. For instance, at the Nashville Health IT Summit earlier this summer, a senior executive from MultiPlan, which is part of this pilot project, was asked about his perspectives on the research and development work done on blockchain in healthcare in the past few years.

To this point, two leaders at KPMG—Arun Ghosh, the firm's U.S. blockchain leader; and Michael B. Yetter, director, healthcare management consulting—recently spoke with Healthcare Informatics about the impact of this new initiative, what the greatest use cases are for blockchain in healthcare today, and how quickly providers and payers might start moving into full-scale projects. Below are excerpts from that discussion.

What are you hearing about blockchain right now as it relates to its greatest use cases in healthcare? What are people most bullish about?

Yetter: From a client perspective, things are a bit on the early side. But [we often see that] as many emerging technologies gain momentum in some other sectors, you will see the pathway through pharma and then into healthcare with payers and providers. We are seeing that same pattern here. On the ground in the healthcare space, especially amongst payers and providers, we’re starting to see more interest in meaningful pilots. We have had some earlier adopters doing proof of concepts and pilots—many around claims or aspects of claims management, and some around the regulatory impacts of the supply chain.

Michael B. Yetter

We are starting to see the nature of conversations around what those use cases could be become increasingly sophisticated around things such as consortiums on provider data, and making sure the historical challenges around getting provider data to agree across multiple entities—who are either submitting or processing claims—that those specific data elements or attributes or shared or reconciled in a better way. So that’s one good example for where you are starting to see collaboration.

Ghosh: The additional capability that blockchain provides, versus traditional EHR (electronic health record) systems, and other enterprise technology that exists today, is that from the time of an encounter to the time of discharge, we see blockchain being piloted around records and interactions with the patient, but also interactions with the pharmaceutical ecosystem—from drug provisioning or procurement to drug administration. Even with the Obama administration saying that we need EHRs across the board, it’s still nascent in terms of who has access to what kind of record and what kind of electronification exists.

Arun Ghosh

So blockchain is coming as the next level of granularity: if we can provide immutable records that are now at the time of pre-diagnosis all the way to wellness, we can track getting better, but also not returning to the hospital. Now, we have a story. Between payers, providers, pharmaceuticals, and distributors, we are seeing varying levels of interest and adoption. They are saying, “let’s pilot a certain part of this,” but there is still no end-to-end view yet, from what we have seen.

What are your thoughts on the MultiPlan/Humana/Optum/Quest/United initiative? Would you classify this as a meaningful pilot?

Yetter: From an outside view, and we haven’t been directly involved, it’s my understanding that this collaboration is focused on provider data sharing. I would classify that as more meaningful because they are bringing multiple parties together to solve for a specific use case and problem. So it goes beyond the earliest conversations, going back a year or more, that were more about learning and understanding the technology. Now they are saying that they get the technology, so let me apply this to a problem we have and something that we can enhance in the industry. And seeing multiple big players involved is encouraging.

Some have said that the greatest use of blockchain in healthcare could be improving on how HIEs (health information exchanges) operate today. Do you agree?

Yetter: I don’t think this is achievable in the short term, and there is the bigger picture of truly getting to a complete HIE—and when I say complete, I mean the truly clinical data that is shared between entities, and ideally something that is more accessible to the patient. The ingredients are there for blockchain to make that significantly more usable, and something that can be potentially controlled and accessed by the actual patient or member. And the patient or member can then have the ability to access the information, and also to permission through some of the mechanisms through blockchain, the sharing of that data or specific parts of the data to others who need it in the healthcare environment. There is a lot of good capabilities there that will evolve in this direction to have blockchain enabling more advanced HIEs, but it will be several steps along the pathway before we truly get to that transformation.

Ghosh: Part of this [potential] disruptive model is that it’s the true democratization of healthcare data—if my data is now being “streamed” into a blockchain, I have ownership of it. So the hypothesis of value here is that if the individual can control his or her data, and then can choose who to share it with—the plan, provider, or someone like Nike or Under Armour—the concept is that there are rewards, such as avoiding rehospitalizations.

How can healthcare organizations better prepare their infrastructures now to implement blockchain in the future?

Yetter: I think the blockchain [implementation] would be more of an add-on, especially in the near term. And I think you will see some of the major vendors out there, be it EHR or adjudication systems, start to consider and build in aspects of blockchain into their own platforms. So there will be a broader enablement that will naturally flow into the infrastructure as it moves forward. But in the near term, there is a good opportunity to add blockchain capabilities to what they already have, and then leverage it for specific cases of pilots or at-scale activities.

Ghosh: The big thing to recognize is that the way enterprise blockchain is evolving, from an infrastructure perspective, it is becoming augmentative rather than disruptive. So you can take an EHR and then you can augment the whole EHR workflow, from encounter to discharge, on the blockchain, [while maintaining] what the traditional EHR looks like. You don’t have to transmit all the data, like you would do in a data warehouse, into another ecosystem. You can leave it as source and hash parts of it on the blockchain as you build the blocks along the workflow. The enterprise blockchain vendors are making this easy to adopt.

There has been plenty of back-and-forth about just how much security blockchain can provide. What are your thoughts on this?

Ghosh: Anytime you encrypt data, it can always be decrypted. A blockchain is nothing but a distributed database at the end of the day. If you have access to that database that doesn’t have a consensus mechanism attached to it, then it is a little insecure. Looking at the T.J. Maxx breach a few years ago, people were swiping their credit cards and the transmission from the point of fail system to the storage system was being intercepted; that was the hack. In the same way, from the time that the traditional system would write to the blockchain, you can intercept that data, and that’s when the insecurity could come into play. And those standards are still evolving. There is no vendor out there that can not only encrypt the transmission protocols between source and blockchain, but also ensure that the blockchain itself is secure.  

What predictions could you offer for blockchain’s continued evolution in healthcare?

Yetter: In 12 to 24 months, you will see a lot of fast-moving activity, and with the changing nature of conversations and the work being done now, there is a clear signal that we are at a bit of an inflection point. But I think we will accelerate the meaningful work in this space and bring the technology in. Going back to the idea of acceptance and use of emerging technologies in other sectors first, we are seeing blockchain in place in financial institutions in meaningful ways. So in the next year or two, I think we will see the same thing in healthcare, whether it’s aspects around provider data, or getting into exposing things to the patient or member so they have greater control. We’ll see a lot of energy and investment in that space.

Ghosh: I think that beyond the pilots that you see today, the voice of the customer will be increasingly automated with enterprise blockchain. Within healthcare, the issue is, how do you provide greater autonomy, depending on who has the data and where? It’s not one or two companies that are trying to do something; it’s five or 10 that want to get together before someone else beats them to it.

 

 


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Town Hall Ventures Close First Fund at $115 Million

September 20, 2018
by David Raths, Contributing Editor
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Adds Landmark Health, Bright Health, Strive Health to Portfolio

Town Hall Ventures, an investment firm built to address the healthcare challenges of the most vulnerable Americans, has closed its first fund at $115 million.

The founding partners — Trevor Price, Andy Slavitt, and David Whelan — announced the firm’s formation on May 7, 2018, at the HLTH Conference in Las Vegas. Their goal is to help build companies to improve care in Medicare, Medicaid, and risk-based care, and in addressing complex conditions and social determinants of health.

The fund and its limited partners represent multiple large nonprofit health systems and payors, along with entrepreneurs, executives and investors. 

Town Hall also disclosed investments in three companies:

• Landmark Health LLC, which provides home-based care to high-acuity Medicare, Medicaid, and Dual Eligible populations who are frail and chronically ill. Landmark’s new CEO, Nick Loporcaro, was recruited by Trevor Price and Oxeon Partners, and the company is backed by General Atlantic and Francisco Partners.

• Bright Health Inc., a technology-enabled health insurance plan that is built in partnership with leading health systems. Bright’s CEO is Bob Sheehy, former CEO of UnitedHealthcare, and the company is backed by NEA, Bessemer Ventures, and Flare Capital Partners.

• Strive Health LLC, a leading provider of chronic kidney disease solutions, focused on transforming healthcare and patients’ lives through early engagement, comprehensive coordinated care, and expanded treatment options. The company's co-founder and CEO is Chris Riopelle. The concept for the business was developed with the co-founders inside the Oxeon Venture Studio and backed by lead investor NEA.

Existing investments include:

• Cityblock Health Inc., which provides primary care, behavioral health, and human services to address unmet health and social needs in urban populations.

• Somatus Inc., which provides treatment and new models of care for patients with chronic kidney disease and end-stage renal disease.

• Welbe Health LLC, a provider of integrated medical and social services to frail seniors who qualify for PACE. 

• Aetion, Inc., a provider of real-world analytics and evidence to help biopharma companies and payors better understand how drugs work in the real world to enable value-based care.

Town Hall also announced that Ann Hickey has joined the firm as a vice president. She previously worked at Audax Group, Oak Hill Capital Partners, Castlight Health, and, most recently, Archimedes Health Investors.

Town Hall is led by Andy Slavitt, former Administrator of the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) and Group Executive Vice President of Optum; Trevor Price, Founder and CEO of Oxeon Holdings – the parent company to Oxeon Partners, a retained executive search firm – and Oxeon Ventures, an investment firm and venture studio; and David Whelan, Managing General Partner of predecessor firm Oxeon Ventures and former General Partner and CFO of investment firm Accretive LLC.

 

 

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At Partners HealthCare, Bringing Digital Transformation to Clinical Care

September 18, 2018
by Rajiv Leventhal, Managing Editor
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Last spring, Partners HealthCare, founded by Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) and Massachusetts General Hospital, and California-based software company Persistent Systems, announced a strategic collaboration to develop a new industry-wide open-source platform with the goal of bringing digital transformation to clinical care.

Indeed, with the digital platform, Partners’ leaders hope to enable greater exchange of information across healthcare providers everywhere, and make available open source applications to any health system. At the time of the 2017 announcement, officials said that the co-developed digital platform will be based on Substitutable Medical Applications & Reusable Technologies (SMART), an open, standards-based technology platform along with Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR). “The platform will enable provider systems across the country to rapidly and cost effectively deploy industry-leading best practices in clinical care across their ecosystems,” according to the announcement.

Healthcare Informatics Managing Editor Rajiv Leventhal recently spoke with Sandy Aronson, executive director of information technology at Partners Healthcare, about this collaboration, its specific goals and outlook, and how things have come along so far. Below are excerpts of that discussion.

What would you say is the greatest significance behind this collaboration?

I have been at Partners for about 15 years, and the first 13 of those years were primarily focused on the clinical use of genetics and genomics. In that space, we created a suite of applications that was architected differently than health IT applications are typically architected. These were applications that helped with the generation of interpreted reports for genetics and genomics sequencing test results. So, where normally in health IT applications you create a transaction system and then try to bolt a knowledge base on top of it to the extent you can, we decided to architect this in the opposite way.

We built a knowledge base that deeply modeled the tests that a laboratory offers, the genes that are covered by that test, variants known to exist in these genes, variants that are learned over time, and the state of knowledge linking those variances to clinically relevant facts—so disease states, drug response, drug efficacy, etc. So we built this deep knowledge base and built a transaction system on top of it, and made a rule that you can’t report out test results unless you keep the knowledge base up-to-date and consistent with your test results. And that enables you to automate the generation of reports.

But as a result, we wound up with this continually-updated knowledge base, so based on that we created what would now be a SMART on FHIR app that plugs into the EHR [electronic health record] and provides clinicians with alerts if something new and potentially clinically relevant is learned about a variant previously identified in one of their patients. So it created this notion of a knowledge base alert being interjected into clinical care.

We studied this and found that clinicians liked it, but the rate at which this learned was dependent on the number of transactions that flow through the system, because that’s how geneticists would gather the data that would enable them to improve their assessment of variants. So we registered this as a medical device, distributed it outside of Partners, and networked the different instances together, so it could learn not just based on our volume, but other folks’ volume as well. Ultimately, we sold that to Sunquest [Information Systems]. The thing we feel was most important was creating this infrastructure that facilitated new clinical processes and captured, shared, and federated data in a way that enabled learning to care.

After having done that, we took a step back and said OK, what should we do next? The infrastructure we built was very specific to issues where genetics and genomics are the major components to deciding what to do for a patient. So we wanted to look at all of the things that made that infrastructure hard to do, and build a platform to make it easier to build things like GeneInsight [an IT platform company owned and developed by Partners], and then distribute that platform, so that in addition to building examples of a similar infrastructure, others can build those examples, too. We wanted that platform to make it easier to distribute apps that are created by different folks in different organizations, ultimately with the goal of networking those apps together.

We are at a unique point in time where you have these new data types coming online that can be helpful to the care delivery process, you have algorithmic-based medicine starting to come into use, both machine learning-based and not, and you have people looking at transformative ideas on how to alter clinical processes where in order to incorporate these new data types and incorporate algorithmic-based approaches to care, you need new kinds of IT support in order to enable these transitions to occur. And that creates an opportunity, not only related to the specific transitions, but also to start collecting data for specific clinical problems in a much finer-grained way that lays the groundwork for these networks that can build the data that’s required to underlie continuous learning processes.

All of this is happening in a time with incredible cost pressure in healthcare, which does constrain internal investment but also makes organizations far less resistant to change. The goal here is to fundamentally enable clinicals to evolve their practices, their care, new data, ideas, and techniques in ways they haven’t done in the past.

Sandy Aronson

And how are you working with Persistent Systems on this, specifically?

We are building this platform together. The platform is called HIP, or health innovation platform, and the platform itself will be open-source, and it sits on top of the current clinical IT ecosystem. You interface it to underlying systems, and then it handles things like some aspects of security, authentication, and HIPAA, but also access to data as well as incorporating shared algorithms.

The goal is having different places hook up the platform, and once it is hooked up, it should create a uniform surface on top of the platform so that apps built on top of the platform become more shareable and distributable. We are now focused on both building the platform and building certain apps. And the apps get interjected to the EHR as SMART on FHIR apps.

Can you give some examples and details of the apps that are being built?

One example is that we have been working with BWH’s cardiology [department] on this program that they have, where if you look at heart failure, which affects about 2 percent of the population and has a very high mortality rate with a great deal of costs associated with it, there are guidelines that have been shown to really be helpful, yet very few people are treated in a way that actually adheres to guidelines. And that’s because the process of getting them to guideline-based care involves this drug selection and titration process that requires a lot of interaction, some of which can make patients unconformable.

But as it turns out, you can instantiate a process where you use patient navigators to take patients through this drug selection and titration process, interacting with them far more frequently than a cardiologist would ever be able to, to get them to guidelines. It’s a data-intensive process. So we are providing support for that program through the HIP platform today and we are really focused on deepening that support.

What are your goals in the next 12 to 24 months regarding this partnership? What would you like to see happen?

The ideal world is that our group and Persistent Systems will continue to add more capabilities to the platform, and that the platform is reducing costs. So many clinicians have ideas on how to fundamentally improve care but they can’t put those ideas into use without these kinds of IT interventions.

One thing I hope is that this will continuously reduce the cost of building those interventions and as a result, our team, and others, too, will develop more of these apps. We hope to see some cross-institutional adoption of apps built here and elsewhere, that the sharing will begin at the app level and ideally, in two years or so, we will be having real conversations about how we can get the networking between apps really going.


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Cigna to Invest $250M in Venture Fund with Eyes on Healthcare Startups

September 17, 2018
by Rajiv Leventhal, Managing Editor
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Cigna, the Connecticut-based health services company, has announced the launch of Cigna Ventures, a corporate venture fund focused on investing in promising healthcare startups and growth-stage companies.

Cigna has specially committed $250 million of capital to Cigna Ventures to invest in transformative and innovative healthcare companies “that are unlocking new growth possibilities in healthcare and will bring improved care quality, affordability, choice, and greater simplicity to customers and clients,” officials said in a press release.

Cigna Ventures is particularly focused on companies across three strategic areas: insights and analytics; digital health and retail; and care delivery/management. Officials say the venture fund was created to help Cigna identify, assess and sponsor early-stage innovation ideas that warrant deeper exploration through focused pilot and test-and-learn activities with the goal of realizing meaningful business value.

“Cigna’s commitment to improving the health, well-being and sense of security of the people we serve is at the front and center of everything we do,” Tom Richards, senior vice president and global lead, strategy and business development at Cigna, said in a statement. “The venture fund will enable us to drive innovation beyond our existing core business operations, and incubate new ideas, opportunities and relationships that have the potential for long-term business growth and to help our customers.”

As an article in Bloomberg noted, “Health insurers have been starting venture-capital arms to find new ideas to improve their businesses and generate financial returns. UnitedHealth Group Inc., the biggest health insurer, said in November that its Optum unit was creating a venture arm with $250 million in funds. Humana Inc., Kaiser Permanente, and a group of Blue Cross and Blue Shield insurers all have venture units.”

According to officials, the venture fund builds on Cigna's existing venture activity, including collaboration with five venture capital partners and an equal number of existing direct investments. These include leading the C1 round of financing with Omada Health, investments in Prognos, Contessa Health, MDLIVE and Cricket Health.

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