Magazine

Game Changers

Four cutting-edge programs out of Boston’s medical community

Check out Beth Israel’s online reservations, Watson’s data-mining, Blue Cross’s end-of-life counseling, and Partners’s genetic software.

ONLINE RESERVATIONS TAKE THE WAIT OUT OF URGENT CARE

Sometimes waiting in a hospital emergency room can be almost as painful as the problem that brought you there. You walk up to the harried receptionist and ask, often repeatedly, “How much longer will it be?”

At Beth Israel Deaconess HealthCare’s Advanced Urgent Care Center in Chestnut Hill, officials think they’ve found a digital cure for the problem: an online reservation system. It’s similar in concept to OpenTable, the popular reservation service now used by tens of thousands of restaurants around the world.

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If you have anything from the flu to a sprained ankle to a sore throat or other non-life-threatening conditions, you can make an appointment online for urgent care.

Planned last year and launched a few months ago, the free service — available here — allows patients to book appointments by selecting from a drop-down list of same-day times and “wait from the comfort of home, work, or even a coffee shop,” as described by Beth Israel Deaconess.

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The health care reservation system, which officials believe is the first of its kind in this region, can also send text alerts reminding patients of appointments or notifying them of any changes.

Already about a third of the center’s patients are using the app by Clockwise.MD, an Atlanta startup that developed the online reservation service, says Jayne Carvelli-Sheehan, senior vice president for ambulatory and emergency services at Beth Israel Deaconess.

“It’s simply been amazing,” Carvelli-Sheehan says of the service’s quick adoption by patients. “This is transforming how urgent care is provided.” — Jay Fitzgerald

NOTHING ABOUT WATSON’S DATA-MINING IS ELEMENTARY

Boston, MA--4/13/2016--Deborah DiSanzo (cq), general manager of IBM Watson Health, takes a question after she delivered the keynote at the MassMEDIC annual conference, on Wednesday, April 13, 2016. Photo by Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff Topic: 14medtech- Reporter: Robert Weisman

Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff/file

Deborah DiSanzo is in charge of IBM’s most ambitious project.

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When IBM chief executive Ginni Rometty appeared on PBS’s Charlie Rose show last year, she talked about the company’s Watson Health initiative as “our moonshot” — the company’s most ambitious project yet.

IBM picked Cambridge as the headquarters for Watson Health and recruited Deborah DiSanzo, previously CEO of Philips Healthcare in Andover, to run it.

Watson Health will try to apply IBM’s latest breakthroughs in artificial intelligence — what the company likes to call “cognitive computing” — to the enormous troves of data that pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and even drugstore chains like CVS generate.

“You probably go into a CVS more than you see your primary care physician,” says DiSanzo. “So we’re working with CVS on a population health solution. They might be able to ping someone and say, ‘Have you had your flu shot?’ or ‘It has been five years since your last immunization or screening’ ” for something.

A partnership with Boston Children’s Hospital will mine data from clinical trials for rare pediatric diseases to understand “the best treatments for a particular kind of patient, based on their genetic profile and the outcomes that were seen in trials,” she says.

Rometty has been an occasional visitor to the new Cambridge outpost, which already employs about 50 people. And DiSanzo expects that the Watson Health group could number 775 by the end of the year.

“My whole life, I have wanted to make a difference in health care technology,” DiSanzo says. That’s a lot easier, she says, when the CEO is behind you. —Scott Kirsner

HELP WITH THE HARDEST CONVERSATION

Death is not an idea that most people want to dwell on. Yet health care experts increasingly believe that discussions about death and dying are critical to providing better and more cost-effective end-of-life care.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts this year took new steps to promote these conversations. The state’s largest commercial health insurer began paying for patient counseling with psychologists, social workers, and other mental health professionals, after last year reimbursing for such discussions between patients and doctors.

Blue Cross also expanded home care benefits to more patients. This might mean higher upfront expenditures for the insurer but in the long run could contain costs and improve care. For example, most Americans say they want to die at home, but most die in hospitals and other expensive institutions.

A new service can become part of the medical mainstream when insurers with the market heft of Blue Cross agree to pay for it. But that doesn’t make conversations about the end of life any easier. They require patients to think about their final days, including whether they want intensive medical treatment until the end or prefer to be at home, away from hospital machines and monitors.

These conversations can be scary and uncomfortable, acknowledges Andrew Dreyfus, president and chief executive of Blue Cross. But, he says, “all patients should be thinking about it.”  — Priyanka Dayal McCluskey

MAKING SENSE OF GENETIC DATA

There are plenty of researchers working with test tubes and microscopes inside the labs of Partners HealthCare. Yet one of Partners’ most promising inventions was not developed in a lab.

Some of the top minds at the health system known for its flagship teaching hospitals, Brigham and Women’s and Massachusetts General, have spent a decade developing a computer program that crunches genetic data. The software helps doctors learn about patients’ internal makeup so they can determine the best way to treat certain diseases.

Partners sold the home-grown software, called GeneInsight, to an Arizona company this year for an undisclosed amount. That company, Sunquest Information Systems Inc., is selling the software to laboratories around the world.

The growing use of the program comes as precision medicine gains traction. That’s when doctors use information about an individual patient, including genetic data, to create personalized treatment plans.

GeneInsight analyzes a patient’s genetic code, drawn from a blood sample. It can pinpoint genetic mutations that may be causing a patient’s lung disease, hearing loss, or other medical condition. Developers will continue updating the program as genetic science advances.

“What we’re really doing is leveraging these advances in genetics and genomics to advance patient care,” says Dr. Anne Klibanski, chief academic officer at Partners. “A system like GeneInsight, it takes these advances and makes them real in a health care system.”

Partners will earn royalties as the software gains new customers. — Priyanka Dayal McCluskey

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