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Precision Medicine: Healthcare's Next Big Breakthrough?

by Greg Carey, Technology Standards and Policy Manager

President Obama’s announcement of the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI) during his State of the Union in 2015 marked a national push toward a healthcare data network. In February of this year, the Sync for Science (S4S) pilot was launched as part of PMI, and we at athenahealth were ready to announce our full commitment. In coordination with the National Institutes of Health and other EHR vendors, athenahealth is creating the infrastructure to sift through vast quantities of research with a fine-toothed comb, utilizing a foundation of patient donated data from the athenahealth network to create more tailored approaches to individual medical treatment.


While the short-term benefits—breaking down data silos, and inviting collaboration amongst institutions—are notable, the long-term effects could be immeasurable. President Obama recently wrote, “The ensuing breakthroughs could help people live longer, happier, and healthier lives; create new jobs and industries in the United States; and, by improving care, will ultimately make our entire health system work better.” In the end, precision medicine aims not just to help doctors treat symptoms, but to target their underlying cause. By equipping doctors on the frontlines with relevant genetic data, PMI and S4S’ insights will empower health care providers to treat conditions more individually and prescriptively and—hopefully--improve outcomes.


As exciting as PMI is, however, it isn’t without its challenges. It takes time to engage patients, collect data, and begin to implement the research gained from the NIH cohort of over one million U.S. participants. Although the large-scale initiative was announced more than a year ago, the S4S pilot is  still in the initial stages of this project as the vendors collaborate to build the technological infrastructure which will undergird future research. In the six months that have passed since making our commitment to S4S, we have built upon the development standards of Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) and are exposing the API end points to health IT developers.


Syncing multiple vendors within one platform is exciting, but it’s also a challenge because the technical ‘language’ we are using, FHIR, is still young. Think of tech development in terms of words: these platforms already exist as a language, and FHIR is a new vocabulary, an expression of data and input. Unlike our APIs, which have been honed over time, FHIR’s protocols are relatively new, and S4S is encouraging critical development and use..


The notion of aggregating data to inform future medical treatments and discussions isn’t a new one. In the age of EHRs, our systems are rich with data, unending catalogues of information, and athenahealth is one of the first organizations to tap into this teeming source. The Precision Medicine Initiative may be fresh on the national healthcare stage, but athenahealth has long been front and center, sharing our network’s data insight for the public good to inform the healthcare of tomorrow. Historically, medicine has relied on academic medical centers and health institutes to bring us important research and innovation. These institutions are necessary and helpful in piecing together healthcare’s fractured foundation. PMI represents a new frontier of research based on more diversely sourced data. It has the potential to deliver treatment as precise as a needlepoint caught in the thick of the healthcare haystack. But let’s not pat ourselves on the back quite yet.


athena’s goal has been, and always will be, to improve the working lives of physicians and to help them do their jobs more efficiently and effectively. We already have the technology and the data to do it. Precision medicine is another exciting frontier that expands our mission, but it’s not the last healthcare mountain to climb either: though its potential is enormous, our potential—as vendors, as physicians, and as innovators, with precision medicine as a tool—is even greater.

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