The Podium

Partnerships will accelerate medical innovation

When hundreds convened in Boston for the recent National Pediatric Innovation Summit, the most striking development wasn’t merely what they said. It was who was in the room — not just physicians, but a profusion of professionals ranging from inventors to investors to engineers and beyond, all representing the best new hope for discovery in medical care: partnership.

This new appreciation for the decisive importance of partnership comes at a compelling time, for innovation is assuming new urgency in children’s health care. The simple human needs of uncured diseases and untreated conditions — including the 7 million children under age five who die each year of treatable ailments like pneumonia and malaria — are one reason. But so are the fiscal and economic pressures bearing down on the health care system.


Costs are under growing pressure that will only escalate as health care reform is implemented, beginning with open enrollment in health exchanges. That pressure is rivaled only by the increasingly competitive environment for research dollars — fueled by budget cuts whose toll on pediatric programs is often especially acute.

These trends demand that we accelerate innovation — and that we think differently about it. That is why one of my foremost priorities as leader of Boston Children’s Hospital will be to help establish a partnership mindset in which, rather than retreating behind institutional lines, we make an active effort to reach beyond them.

The question is simple, and it must be asked at the earliest stage of the innovative process: With whom can we partner to make what we’re doing bigger, better and more productive? Who can challenge our thinking and expand our ideas?

Boston Children’s has already asked those questions, and the results illustrate the value of a partnership-driven approach. Recently, for example, we partnered with IBM to launch OPENPediatrics, a cloud-based social learning platform that connects physicians and nurses across the world to share best practices in the care of critically ill children.


The idea was born when Dr. Jeffrey Burns, chief of critical care medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital, helped a physician in Guatemala care for a girl with a serious infection by talking to the doctor over the phone. Dr. Burns knew there had to be a better way — and that better technology was the key to unlocking knowledge transfer on a global scale. So he turned to one of the greatest technology companies in the world — IBM.

Today OPENPediatrics is making it possible for Boston Children’s Hospital’s knowledge to be shared in remote corners of the globe without deploying costly and cumbersome technological infrastructure. More than 1,000 doctors and nurses in 74 countries on six continents are already piloting the OPENPediatrics system. As one participant in last week’s summit observed, OPENPediatrics has the potential to shatter a century-old model of medical education that confines the flow of knowledge to learning from a mentor within brick-and-mortar walls.

OPENPediatrics is one example of a partnership that improves quality of care. Another partnership is both improving care and lowering cost. We call it SCAMPs — Standardized Clinical Assessment and Management Plans. These partnerships unite multiple institutions whose clinicians submit outcomes about the treatments they administer and the outcomes they produce. The data are rigorously analyzed to generate a standardized, effective and efficient treatment plan for particular conditions. More than 20 health care institutions, adult and pediatric, are now collecting SCAMP data for more than 50 conditions.


Partnerships can also lead to both better health care and new commercial possibilities. That’s the case with Claritas Genomics, a new company formed in partnership between Boston Children’s Hospital and Life Technologies Corporation. Through Claritas, we are combining our hospital’s expertise in fields like medical genetics and genomics with Life Technologies’ capabilities in areas like instrumentation and software. The results will include breakthrough approaches for genetics and genomics-based diagnostic testing for children.

To be sure, the idea of partnerships itself is not new. But its urgency is. In a fast-changing landscape for health care — one marked by growing cost pressures and shrinking resources — the one certainty is that no one can meet the challenges alone. Equally important, in an environment of rapidly expanding knowledge, neither can anyone seize the full range opportunities alone. The future lies not behind institutional lines but across them. Partnerships can accelerate innovation — not for partnerships’ sake, but for the sake of what brought hundreds of innovators to Boston recently: saving children’s lives.

Sandra Fenwick is president and chief executive officer at Boston Children’s Hospital.