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Aggressive Treatment

A $402 million deal between IBM and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center aims to cut operating costs with improved efficiency, while also co-developing IT products the rest of the industry may use

Another potential area of collaboration is in combining the medical center's clinical knowledge in areas such as cancer research with IBM technologies such as supercomputing and analytics. In the past year, IBM has forged other alliances in this kind of research to develop personalized health care with some of the country's most-prestigious health-care providers, including Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic.

Mayo Clinic researchers are working with IBM researchers and consultants to map out ways to use patient data to improve diagnosis and treatment plans for some of the most-resistant forms of cancer and other diseases. They've cross-referenced 4.4 million patient records to look for significant patterns. The work between Cleveland Clinic and IBM includes data-mining projects aimed at improving treatment plans for patients with potentially deadly cardiac and other conditions.

IBM last week also disclosed that it's establishing a test lab linking its facilities in San Jose, Calif.; Rochester, Minn.; and Haifa, Israel, to simulate moving standardized medical records. The company also acquired Healthlink Inc., a provider of health IT services and consulting.

But even if UPMC and IBM produce viable products, they may face a reluctant and cash-strapped market. Average IT budgets are only 2.5% to 3% of revenue for most health-care providers, says Gartner analyst John David Lovelock; those spending 4% to 4.5% are considered aggressive.

Ron Strachan, CIO of HealthEast Care System, a St. Paul, Minn.-area hospital and clinic group, knows the budget pressures well. He sees why a research group like UPMC might need extensive data sharing to further its mission. But for most patients, who stay within one care environment unless they move away, the critical shared data could center on what an emergency doctor might need, such as knowing a patient is diabetic or has a heart condition or a drug allergy. Off-the-shelf software will deliver that capability, he says.

Still, Strachan is more concerned about an issue that UPMC's all-under-one-roof approach doesn't address: "In large part, health-care organizations, plans, and insurers aren't willing to share the data that would make these efforts successful. It's a matter of trust."

Clearly there are major technology problems begging for breakthrough innovations. Several technical hurdles stand in the way of the Bush administration's goal of having digital records for most Americans by 2014, said Dr. David Brailer, the administration's point man on electronic medical records and health-care IT coordinator, at an IBM event last week. Consumers need health information that's portable and private, factors that can be contradictory. "There are no right answers. We don't want to see a monolithic response," Brailer said. "We want to see a set of responses."

UPMC's deal with IBM represents one large health-care system's response. Will this pact revolutionize the delivery of medicine in western Pennsylvania? Will it be a model others in the industry will buy? Even as the government pushes the industry to develop vendor-neutral tech standards for a national health infrastructure, there's a pressing need for real-world examples to test the theories and speed adoption. Says Drawbaugh, "Standards are being developed, but at the same time, the implementation of standards needs to occur."

--With Charles Babcock

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