Pitt targets national, global infectious disease threats with tech initiatives

The University of Pittsburgh is leveraging information technology in two separate efforts aimed at tackling the growing threat to public health from infectious disease.

UPMC has launched a new company—called Infectious Disease Connect—designed to help U.S. hospitals address a nationwide shortage of physicians specializing in ID by providing them with telemedicine services.

Currently, ID Connect serves 10 UPMC and five non-UPMC hospitals in Pennsylvania and nearby states. However, the company is looking to focus on the more than 4,000 acute care hospitals nationally with fewer than 300 beds.

“These smaller facilities face an especially difficult time recruiting and retaining already scarce ID specialists,” says co-founder Rima Abdel-Massih, MD, chief medical officer for the company and director of tele-ID services at UPMC. “ID Connect can cost-effectively provide ID specialists, full-time or part-time, to augment existing staff.”

“It started about five years ago as a pilot within the Division of Infectious Diseases,” notes David Zynn, president of ID Connect, which is part of UPMC Enterprises, the health system’s innovation and commercialization arm. “March 1, UPMC Enterprises invested in a new company—ID Connect. We moved the contracts and the relationships from the pilot over to the commercial entity. We’re now up and running, and looking to grow the business.”

While Zynn says that ID Connect will initially target U.S. acute care hospitals, he observed that longer-term, the company plans to pursue post-acute care, patients at home following hospital discharge, as well as facilities in other countries. “There is an international opportunity and we’re actually exploring that with the international division of UPMC,” according to Zynn.

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Also See: Intermountain launches infectious diseases telehealth program

In a separate initiative, the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health is developing a cloud-based platform to enable the scientific community to store, share, access and use massive libraries of ID data with high-performance computing.

Under a five-year, $6.7 million National Institutes of Health grant, Pitt Public Health will spearhead a multidisciplinary team of computer scientists, biostatisticians and biomedical informatics experts to direct the Network Coordination Center for the Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study (MIDAS), a collaborative research network to assist the nation in preparing for ID threats.

“The scientific community is increasingly recognizing that sharing research data and software not only benefits individual research projects, but increases the impact of science and innovation on the greater good. However, nobody’s figured out exactly how to do this for global infectious diseases,” says Wilbert van Panhuis, MD, assistant professor of epidemiology at Pitt Public Health and biomedical informatics at Pitt’s School of Medicine, who will lead the new center.

“What we’re going to do is leverage that interest in ‘open science’ to create a framework that will make it easy to share, find and use research data and software to combat infectious diseases,” adds Van Panhuis.

Initially, the MIDAS Network Coordination Center will focus on standardizing and uploading hundreds of existing ID datasets into its platform, as well as determining from scientists how data and software can optimally help their work.

“Our hope is that after that first year, the MIDAS network will be able to demonstrate the benefits of open science and open data for making new discoveries,” says Van Panhuis. “We’ll also be going after new data ourselves, on behalf of MIDAS, collecting datasets from health organizations and government entities worldwide, so that the scientists have to spend less time obtaining data and can instead concentrate on making discoveries with it.”

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