Healthcare, here’s your dose of network medicine

Most of us experience the power of networks everyday: Amazon and Netflix predict with startling accuracy what book or movie we might like to watch, then download it for us instantly.

Facebook and LinkedIn suggest new friends and business contacts. Instacart studies your grocery habits and supplies you with a researched and relevant shopping checklist. Healthcare, though, has an information activation problem. Clinical research grows exponentially, yet our continuing medical education system remains frozen in the 20th centruty. Treasure troves of data remain locked up in the individual electronic health records of competing health systems while each strives on their own to become learning health systems. Innovation fails to flow where it's needed, let alone drive critical action.

Whether you're a health IT vendor, a physician group leader, or a patient, you're no stranger to healthcare's connectivity problem, and the potentially lethal effect that this lack of communication can have. Providers (and by extension, their patients) sometimes go without time-sensitive, late-breaking, critical clinical information because they don't always have time to access the latest journal of research, scan this month's specialty newsletter, or catch the CDC's late-breaking health alert. Also, consider that there are hundreds of new clinical guidelines introduced each month by specialty societies and governing bodies. The challenge for providers to stay abreast in the ever-changing world of medicine is, at the very least, overwhelming.

The goal of Network Medicine is to cultivate the seamless dissemination of critical clinical updates to clinicians and patients that may be impacted. Then – through the power of a cloud-based healthcare network – take action in collaboration with healthcare providers.

Unlike the passive, unidirectional flow of releasing a clinical guideline, the interventions of Network Medicine are multi-pronged and cyclical. First, we match guidelines to pertinent demographics and qualifications—for example, the potential risk of ACE inhibitors on pregnant women—and identify and contact providers and their patients who may be impacted. The result: a critical connection is established between providers and their at-risk patients: Patients are encouraged to have discussions with their providers and, importantly, become engaged in their care.

Borinquen Medical Centers of Miami-Dade County were among the first care organizations to benefit from a Network Medicine health campaign, which was activated last summer on the heels of the CDC's Zika alert and worked to identify and mobilize patients at risk of infection and bring them in for a screening. Partnering with athenahealth and its network, outreach launched on a Wednesday evening. The following day, more than 1,300 at-risk Borinquen patients were alerted and free screenings were offered by the Department of Public Health. Borinquen's patients and providers indicated that the campaigns were timely, helpful, and appreciated.

For all the "smart systems" in our lives—internet-enabled devices in our kitchens and thermostats, smartphones in our pocket—even the best HIT vendors haven't been good enough at scaling the delivery of critical clinical insights into providers' hands quickly, cleanly, and actionably. The result is missed opportunities, outdated treatments, and even medical errors—the third leading cause of death in the U.S. In order to quell these issues, we need our health systems to truly be "smart": network-enabled, information-sharing, and driven by patient outcomes.

athenahealth is teaming up with the country's most preeminent specialty societies, including the American College of Cardiology and the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons, to leverage ongoing clinical research and guidelines to identify patients whose health is at risk due to pre-existing conditions and/or drug interactions. With the help and insight of network data, together we are helping to prevent at-risk pregnancies, manage drug-drug interactions and chronic conditions, and adjust treatment for cardiovascular patients.

The rapid pace of clinical research and evolving guidelines demands that health information flow freely and that healthcare providers have the latest insight and information at their fingertips. With this in mind, it is more important than ever for providers to have a trusted partner bringing them the latest research and guidance in the moments of care. By aggregating existing clinical guidelines and consistently disseminating updates and alerts as easily digestible action items, we can create a new pool of healthcare information that will bolster physician engagement, patient safety, and financial performance—all accessible at the touch of a button.

Todd Rothenhaus MD, chief medical officer, athenahealth

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