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Moving Forward on Digital Pathology Development

January 20, 2011
by Mark Hagland
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Why the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is investing in work on a pathology breakthrough

Last autumn, the 20-hospital University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) health system announced an agreement with Chalfont St. Giles, U.K.-based GE Healthcare that will soon lead to clinical research testing of an innovative new digital pathology platform, through the two organizations’ $6 billion Omnyx joint venture. The digital pathology innovation represents another step forward for UPMC leaders, who are determined to leverage their vendor and other business relationships to advance healthcare technology and healthcare information technology.

The UPMC health system’s senior vice president and CIO, Dan Drawbaugh, spoke recently with HCI Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland, regarding this digital pathology initiative, and how it fits into his organization’s broader innovation strategies.

Healthcare Informatics: How did this digital pathology innovation begin?

Dan Drawbaugh: In terms of the partnership with General Electric, we’ve enjoyed a very strategic relationship with GE for many years. This dates back to the time years ago when Jeff Immelt was running GE Medical, and when Jack Welch was the chairman. So we go back a long way in terms of a very positive strategic relationship. And as you look at the overall framework, there’s a lot of trust involved, a lot of respect for each other’s capabilities. So I’ll begin with that as a foundational piece of the creation of Omnyx. And I think of the Omnyx technology as a transformative technology, much as PACS was at the time it came out. We were all running around and doing ROI studies, and trying to justify that the technology would be accepted within the healthcare industry.

Dan Drawbaugh

And there were the naysayers who said the cost of this digital technology was just too high for healthcare. And eventually with PACS, it became difficult to practice good, economically sound healthcare without PACS. I view digital pathology the same way. Not only will it transform the pathology process, but it will also position the pathology professional as a team member within the process of care, to some extent in the way that similar things happened as PACS evolved.

Historically, pathologists have been behind the scenes in terms of diagnosis and treatment of patients. But instead of the traditional way of reading the slides through the microscope, they will be positioned to be a key player in the care process. Initially, we thought of this as a digital technology, but already, even before the release of the product, a lot of the focus is going into the development of clinical algorithms in clinical pathology. So we’re already seeing smarter and more brilliant technologies evolving, as a number of researchers and others are taking the digital information now and developing clinical algorithms. And Omnyx has also signed an agreement with Dako out of Denmark, a global leader in tissue-based cancer diagnostics. The point of it is that what we’re seeing is, through relationships such as Dako, but also internal to Omnyx, the development of these advanced algorithms that are going to be utilized with the digital pathology technology. And already within Omnyx, upon release, there will be 60 algorithms run with the digital pathology technology.

HCI: When will the release be?

Drawbaugh: It has not received FDA approval yet; we are right now in beta testing within UPMC.

HCI: Do you anticipate that it might happen next year?

Drawbaugh: We’re thinking it will be towards the end of next year.

HCI: How does this fit into the context of your overall vision of the organization?

Drawbaugh: We remain on the path that I had communicated with you two years ago. In fact, we’re now at the point where we’ve created—we’ve developed within UPMC what we’re calling the Technology Development Center. That is a fully funded center that will end up with approximately 25 full-time employees who are Ph.D. scientists, researchers and developers. The focus is on the goal of innovation in IT, using UPMC’s key assets, to really differentiate us from other healthcare delivery systems. And this aligns with the GE relationship, because it will make us an attractive partner to for-profit healthcare companies. Looking at leveraging our healthcare delivery, our informaticists.

The TDC is funded at the level of $8 million. And going back to what I communicated two years ago on the joint investment relationship that we have, this aligns very well with creating the pipeline for new products, new solutions for healthcare, where we could consider them, much as with GE—I could see us returning to GE and saying, ‘say, we’ve come up with this new technology, and let’s do another innovation.’ And it also provides for our strategic partners, again like GE, where GE will look at us and say, UPMC has the domain expertise, the capability, and the technology expertise, to make us (UPMC) an ideal partner. Obviously, it’s a collaboration type of model. So that’s how we’re thinking of the future.

HCI: You have a level of self-confidence that is noteworthy in this operating and economic environment. You don’t seem to be hunkering down.

Drawbaugh: Yes, we’re definitely not hunkering down. We remain true to our organization’s vision and goals. If anything, I see a greater focus with our president and CEO, where he’s very bullish about these information technology opportunities and strategic relationships.


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