How Verily chose provider partners Atrius Health & Wake Forest Baptist — and vice versa — and how they're protecting patient data

In just the last six months, amid rising concerns over Google's data-sharing partnerships with hospitals and health systems, sister company Verily has struck several partnerships of its own with health systems across the U.S.

Since October, Verily, the life sciences arm of Alphabet, has partnered with the VA Palo Alto (Calif.) Health Care System and Newton, Mass.-based Atrius Health to use data to address major population health issues; with Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Wake Forest Baptist Health to use data to support the health and independence of senior citizens; and with Atlanta-based Emory Healthcare to use data to make medication and lab ordering more efficient and cost-effective.

Leaders from Verily, Atrius Health and Wake Forest Baptist Health shared with Becker's not only how they formed their respective collaborations and what they hope to achieve, but also how they are navigating the tricky and increasingly scrutinized waters of sharing healthcare data between hospitals and technology companies while protecting patient privacy.

Crafting the perfect partnership

The partnerships came about as part of Verily's efforts to forge "deep collaborations across the entire healthcare system," comprising care solutions, research solutions and innovation solutions, according to Vivian Lee, MD, PhD, the company's president of health platforms.

"We partner with organizations that share our vision for using data and connectivity to advance various areas of medicine and patient care, and ultimately bolster the industry's efforts around precision medicine and healthcare that achieves the aims of better outcomes, lower costs and a better experience for both patients and those who provide care for them," Dr. Lee said.

For Wake Forest Baptist Health, partnering with Verily was an "obvious" choice.

"Verily was a natural partner for us given their expertise in human- and user-centered design and technology," Jeff Williamson, MD, director of the health system's Center for Healthcare Innovation, and Eric Kirkendall, MD, deputy director of the center, wrote in a joint statement. "Essentially, we are the domain and workflow experts, and they are extremely adept at designing and building highly effective tech tools in a fast and agile manner."

They continued, "When we look for partners, we look for expertise. The more we talked about it, the more obvious it was that we could learn from each other and make a difference in how we deliver care for our patients."

Atrius Health, too, was eager to work with the life sciences leader.

"One of the strengths of our collaboration with Verily is that they were interested in helping us design a project tailored to meeting the needs our patients and our practice," said Philip Ciampa, MD, Atrius' chief innovation engineer. "We were aligned on the opportunity from the start — using a data-driven approach to improve chronic disease management of patients with heart failure."

Perhaps even more crucially, however, Verily also differed from other potential tech partners in wanting to work with Atrius' leaders to develop solutions tailor-made for the health system, rather than simply installing premade, one-size-fits-all technology.

"They were committed from the outset to work alongside us to deeply understand the needs of our patients and providers in this space as a prerequisite to developing solutions to those needs," Dr. Ciampa said. "That is in contrast to many in tech who seek to test an existing product in the setting of our practice, which may or may not ultimately bring value."

Navigating the dos and don'ts of data-sharing

The success of most of these partnerships will rely in large part on the quantity and quality of the healthcare data each health system shares with Verily. In turn, every piece of that data must be properly protected — an issue that is top of mind for all organizations involved.

When asked about Verily's data privacy safeguards, Dr. Lee pointed to the company's privacy policy and privacy principles, which outline Verily's commitment to both protecting data and giving users control over how that data is used and shared.

"We strive for transparency — when people share data with us, they should know where it's going. The healthcare system can and should deliver better outcomes for patients, and we believe technology can play a critical role in that. Together with individuals, we want to innovate responsibly and effect tangible change," she said. "To that end, we have many data security safeguards in place, and we regularly review our security practices to proactively guard against unauthorized access. We strive to maintain the security of patient information by using appropriate measures designed to protect our systems."

The increased scrutiny facing data-sharing partnerships between health systems and technology companies has yet to scare off Verily or its collaborators.

"With these kinds of partnerships between medical centers and technology vendors, the only thing to do to completely limit any risk is to not engage in any partnerships at all. That's a stance some are taking, but that is leaving a lot of opportunities to improve healthcare on the table," Wake Forest Baptist Health's Dr. Williamson and Dr. Kirkendall said. "We prefer to intelligently engage suitable technology partners who are like-minded and strategically aligned, who are well intentioned and who have a lot to offer as we try to find better solutions that definitively improve our current healthcare delivery system."

Dr. Lee echoed this sentiment on Verily's behalf. "Our mission remains the same: to convert data into knowledge at scale and work with partners that are like-minded and can work with us to advance new insights and solutions that help patients," she explained. "Our teams track industrywide regulations, like the EU's General Data Protection Regulation or the California Protection and Privacy Act, closely, to ensure that we are always in compliance, while continuing to foster innovation to improve patient care."

She continued, "Success in our mission also requires that we collaborate closely with our partners, one of the reasons we've chosen to work with organizations who share a deep commitment to protecting patient privacy and believe that data and the insights from those data can improve the lives of their patients."

The company's commitment to building data-driven solutions despite the excess caution required to do so is reflected in the even-handed manner with which its partners are approaching the issues at hand — focusing primarily on improving healthcare delivery and outcomes, while also seeking to disrupt and innovate in the industry.

"Our first obligation as a health system is to avoid causing harm, and that includes protecting the privacy of our patients and their health information," Dr. Ciampa, of Atrius Health, said. "At the same time, we believe there is merit to collaborating with innovative technology companies so as not to miss critical opportunities to improve care for the people we serve."

He added, "We see a role for ourselves in stewarding in this digital transformation, seeking to improve the care of our patients — with focused attention to innovation that is smart and safe, and protects them in our journey toward the optimal healthcare experience."

And while Verily's project with Wake Forest Baptist Health does not require the health system to share large swaths of patient data, the information that is shared is presented in aggregate form when possible; when individual data must be shared, it is de-identified. Additionally, Dr. Williamson and Dr. Kirkendall stressed, the project is following all HIPAA and patient privacy laws, and is arranged as a research study, giving patients the ability to opt out of any data gathering and sharing through the informed consent process.

"In short, this is a very different approach than that taken by other institutions and companies that made headlines lately," they said.

Following through

The ultimate goals of these carefully concocted partnerships are manifold. Atrius Health, for example, is looking for a tech-enabled transformation in how healthcare organizations care for patients with chronic diseases.

"As care becomes more specialized and more complex, clinicians increasingly rely on data to drive clinical decisions. The sheer volume of data that is generated by use of the EHR can make it challenging to sort out important information that might signal a change in clinical status from noise," Dr. Ciampa said.

"As a result, clinical teams often find themselves in the position of reacting to patients with exacerbations of illness because they lack the tools and the time to proactively intervene," he explained. "At the same time, if clinicians had better systems to make sense of that information, we could more effectively get the right care to the right person at the right time. We could also spend less time sorting through EHR information and more time building the types of relationships with our patients that often makes the difference in managing chronic illness together in partnership."

At Wake Forest Baptist, meanwhile, though the partners are certainly hoping to develop more data-driven ways to improve seniors' health and well-being between clinical visits, they are also viewing the project as a mutual learning experience.

"For some projects, we need to move much faster than at a typical research pace, and we have to use some skills that are not in the traditional 'wheelhouse' of an academic medical center," Dr. Williamson and Dr. Kirkendall said. "Verily excels at using creativity to drive the design and construction of novel tools, to evaluate them and to do so quickly."

With this in mind, they said, "We're hoping to learn from them, as much as we're hoping to share with them what integrating new tools into real-world clinical systems is like. It's more challenging than many think."

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