Commentary: New patient information sharing system will save lives


Ten years ago, Thomas Tierney almost died after taking a drug for his neurological condition. A doctor noted the near-fatal reaction in Tom’s medical chart, which went into the office’s file cabinet.

A year later, Tom went into the hospital after a fall. A different physician noted his neurological condition and prescribed the drug from the year before. Tom had another reaction — this time, it was fatal. All the while, information warning of the drug’s risks for Tom was locked in a doctor’s office, unavailable to the hospital.

When people think of health care, they think of life and death, science and technology. But at its core, health care is an information business. Doctors don’t just manage our health — they manage our information and data. They take medical histories, perform physical examinations and read through our records to gauge progress, identify risks and avoid mistakes.

There is an avalanche of interest in data science, in Texas and across the country, because of its tremendous potential to improve health and transform lives. Last month, Merck, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, announced its intention to place a health information technology research center near the new Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin, where we both work.

Our mission is to improve health. To do so, we must improve health data and the way it’s used. Vital records are too often scattered among offices and hospitals using different systems that don’t talk to each other. The records can be huge. The average patient generates more than 80 million bits of information every year — data for only 80 patients would completely fill the largest iPhone’s storage capacity.

Records are also highly diverse and unwieldy. The data contain numbers for things such as blood pressure and blood sugar, codes for diagnoses and test results, images for xrays and scanned reports, and lots of notes.

These chaotic approaches make our health system costly and, at times, unsafe. A recent study found that medical error is the nation’s third leading cause of death, after heart disease and cancer.

Physicians and innovators are finding new ways to capture and analyze health data, helping providers make better decisions and avoid duplication and mistakes. UT Austin and the Dell Medical School are poised to help lead this revolution.

The Texas Advanced Computing Center, with its massive storage and supercomputing capabilities, offers an unparalleled ability to manage massive data sets and breaks ground in the analysis of that data. The Dell Medical School is developing innovative new electronic medical record systems and recruiting faculty who have created, marketed and operated electronic medical record systems and health information exchanges that allow data sharing. And more than 60 world-class scientists, bridging high-tech units across UT, are members of the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences, which creates collaborations that use artificial intelligence and deep machine learning tools.

This data-focused transformation is at the core of Austin’s health ecosystem. A generation of entrepreneurs is building on the region’s tech expertise and experience, finding new ways to make health data meaningful. Larger companies are recognizing the unique opportunity that Austin represents — at the facility Merck has publicly contemplated, roughly 600 researchers and technicians would collaborate with Dell Med, UT Austin faculty, and entrepreneurs and civic leaders on initiatives and technologies that improve health, reduce costs, increase access and create value for patients and society.

When companies such as Merck look at Austin, we believe they see what we see: a unique ecosystem rooted in a multidisciplinary research university campus and a shared community vision for improving health. We hope momentum grows as successes are demonstrated.

Dell Med’s mission is to revolutionize the way people get and stay healthy. These collaborations can help make Austin a model healthy city. And the lessons we learn here can transform communities across the country, saving the lives of people like Tom Tierney by ensuring doctors know everything they need to know.

Johnston is the inaugural dean of the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas. Tierney is the inaugural chair of population health at Dell Medical School.



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