How AdventHealth Orlando is building a future in genomics: Q&A with Dr. Wes Walker

Wes Walker, MD, associate chief medical information officer at AdventHealth Orlando, sees the potential genomics has to help detect and prevent diseases, beginning with the hospital's own recent initiatives.

In July, AdventHealth Orlando launched its WholeMe study, which is the first project from the AdventHealth Genomics and Personalized Health Program. Through the study, the hospital is offering 10,000 Florida residents access to free DNA testing with Helix, a direct-to-consumer genomics company. 

Dr. Walker, who also serves as the program director of genomics and personalized health at AdventHealth Orlando, said the launch of WholeMe and the genomics and personalized health program are stepping stones in AdventHealth Orlando's goal to provide comprehensive genomics testing, analysis, interpretation and counseling services to its patients. 

Prior to joining AdventHealth Orlando, Dr. Walker held various positions at Cerner before finishing as the company's vice president and CMO for the U.S. East Division. It was during his four-year stint with the EHR vendor that Dr. Walker developed an interest in genomics and personalized medicine.

Here, Dr. Walker discusses the inspiration behind WholeMe and his predictions of the effect genomics will have on healthcare over the next few years.

Editor's Note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Question: What is AdventHealth Orlando's No. 1 goal of the WholeMe project?

Dr. Wes Walker: We want to advance screenings for familial hypercholesterolemia, which ultimately will result in improved treatment and prevent people from having catastrophic cardiovascular events. This will save lives. We are also hoping to find out how genomics impacts personal health decisions and learn how genomics can be successfully integrated into healthcare to prevent, diagnose and treat diseases.

Q: How does AdventHealth Orlando plan to apply the findings of the study to improve patient care? 

WW: When we began planning for WholeMe, it was important that we designed a study that would not only be beneficial for the participants, but also be impactful for our community and healthcare in the future. We knew we needed to provide a holistic experience and one that didn't end with just the participants' results. That's why our physician leadership and research teams designed a care pathway for participants who carry the genes associated with familial hypercholesterolemia. This pathway involves a care navigator and cardiologists.

Over time, we will begin to see how personal decisions are impacted by genomics and how to best incorporate it into healthcare. Ultimately, we hope WholeMe will empower our community and physicians with information they can use to shift from reactive medicine to preventive wellness.

Q: What sparked AdventHealth Orlando's interest in the study? 

WW: Genomics is the future of medicine, and the field is rapidly evolving. As we began our internal discussions about genomics and how to best incorporate it at AdventHealth, we knew research would play a strong role. We decided to focus on familial hypercholesterolemia screening initially because it's a condition that is associated with life-threatening cardiovascular events. FH is treatable once identified, and finding those who have the condition can lead to identifying other family members who are subsequently identified who never knew they had the disease.

Q: How will AdventHealth Orlando's collaboration with Helix enhance the WholeMe project? 

WW: We wanted a study that would impact our entire community, and we looked for a partner that had similar experience. We were impressed with the Healthy Nevada project that Helix is involved with, which is similar to how we wanted to model WholeMe.

Helix is integral to WholeMe as their sequencing technology will allow us to deliver scalable and impactful genomic services. Helix's advanced sequencing laboratory and service model enabled us to operationalize WholeMe this year.

Q: How do you think technology will continue to affect genomics in the next three to five years?

WW: Technology will continue to have a profound effect on genomics for the foreseeable future. First, technological progress will continue to drive down the costs of sequencing and data analysis, which will expand the number of research and clinical applications as well as broaden health system adoption. Increasingly sophisticated data science capabilities will enable organizations to tailor prevention strategies and treatments to the individual person in ways not thought possible 20 years ago. Finally, the development of intelligent decision support tools for clinicians will continue to improve; this will assist practitioners apply the ever-expanding knowledge base of genomics to those they serve at the point-of-care.

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