UPMC’s McCallister and Heppenstall: The Time Is Now to Invest in HIT’s Future

Feb. 28, 2017
In the midst of the frenzied activity at HIMSS17 in Orlando last week, UPMC CIO Ed McCallister and UPMC Enterprises president Tal Heppenstall spoke with Healthcare Informatics about where their organization is headed these days

In the midst of the frenzied activity taking place at HIMSS17 last week in Orlando, UPMC senior vice president CIO Ed McCallister and C. Talbot “Tal” Heppenstall, Jr., executive vice president and president of UPMC Enterprises, the business and technology development arm of the vast, 25-plus-hospital health system, based in Pittsburgh, met with Healthcare Informatics Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland on Feb. 21, to share their perspectives on the HIMSS Conference and to discuss the industry more broadly.

They also wanted to discuss the strategic partnership announced on Thursday, Feb. 16 with the Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft Corporation to build and pilot products aimed at transforming healthcare delivery. In its story published that day, the Pittsburgh Business Times quoted Heppenstall as saying that "The partnership will result in some new companies and new products being created and concocted here in Pittsburgh over the next six months or so.” According to the Business Times’s report, “UPMC Enterprises will work with Microsoft Research, and Heppenstall said UPMC will develop and demo the products before bringing them to market.” It further quoted Heppenstall as stating that "Microsoft has technology tools they're very anxious to deploy in health care, and to the extent that they can come to UPMC and UPMC can be what we call 'customer zero' for these products, they think it's a huge benefit to them. It's Microsoft Research, so it isn't existing products you can buy off the shelf, but one's they're actually inventing.” He told the Business Times that UPMC is particularly excited to work with Microsoft on solutions involving artificial intelligence.

McCallister, who in October 2014 became CIO at UPMC, and Heppenstall, who has been with UPMC since 2003 and executive vice president since 2013, both have a long-view perspective on current developments and trends in healthcare. Below are excerpts from the interview.

When you look at what you’re seeing this year at HIMSS, in terms of discussions among colleagues, and also in terms of what you see on the exhibit floor at HIMSS17, on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of the potential spectrum of optimism and pessimism, where are you right now?

McCallister: I’m actually extremely encouraged, because it seems more like a year of action than concept. In the past, we’ve talked about consumerism and other trends transforming healthcare. Now, I’m hearing about actions, such as the move to the cloud. In the past, we talked about, ‘to cloud or not to cloud,’ and now we’re hearing about approaches.

Ed McCallister

Heppenstall: I agree with Ed; people are taking advantage of the opportunities there. We wouldn’t be able to do the thing we’re doing right now without the cloud; we need that level of storage and capability.

McCallister: In the past, it was a technology discussion, without the recipient of the technology at the table. Now, we’ve actually engaged physicians, instead of just deploying EMRs. We were good at digitizing healthcare, but we didn’t change clinician workflow. And I think that finally, that slide that everyone’s seen about people, process, and technology, now makes sense.

Meanwhile, at UPMC, we’re moving to a new data center—and we’re moving to a co-location data center with Involta, from Cedar Rapids. We’re going to become the anchor tenant for a new data center that’s being built 20 miles outside of Pittsburgh. So we’ll be in a hybrid cloud, which will give us the ability to expand and contract as needed, while the cost is minimal. If you build a new data center today, it’s north of $100 million; whereas, with the colocation model, we’ll probably reduce our footprint by over 50 percent, across the life of the data center. So at the end of 2017 or the beginning of 2018, we’ll reduce our server count by about 1,000, from out of close to 10,000 servers. That’s pretty impressive—it represents about 10 percent of our total count of servers. We’re moving disaster recovery and our test environment initially. And it’s a state-of-the-art, tier 3 data center.

The second thing we have going on is a biometrics initiative. With a company called Certify. We’re 60-percent deployed, and we’ll be moving into the physician offices next. And those are just two examples. We’re not a data center company or a bio-device company. Instead, we invest in companies that take us to the next level. The third thing is the machine learning initiative that we’re embarking on. In terms of UPMC core, and the great things we do—we’ve not been shy to invest in technologies to invest in being a market leader. And the partnership with Microsoft highlights where we’re trying to drive unnecessary costs out of the current model, and invest where the future will be. If we don’t do it ourselves, we’ll have to adapt to somebody else’s change.

Heppenstall: We announced it Thursday—a new strategic partnership between UPMC and Microsoft Research, to bear on a series of problems. The first problem we’re focusing on is physician empowerment. Physicians went to medical school to take care of patients, and two of every three hours spent now by physicians is in typing on computers. We think we can make a significant dent in that problem, and solve not just a physician empowerment problem, but also improve patient care. So we’re really excited about this initiative. That’s the first of several problem areas we’re going to be tackling. Microsoft Research works the same way that UPMC Enterprises does, which is to scope out a problem and then find a solution and then commercialize it.

Tal Heppenstall

McCallister: Yes, with UPMC Enterprises, we’re able to cycle it through real-world problems and solutions.

Heppenstall: One of the areas on which Microsoft Research is extremely focused on is speech recognition and artificial intelligence. You need artificial intelligence to do speech recognition, and the more data you feed into a speech recognition model, the better it gets. So that’s a huge opportunity.

What are two, three, or four of the most urgent things you’re really focused on now as CIO?

McCallister: At the outer shell layer, it would be cybersecurity—securing the data and putting the patient at the center of all that we do, with the patient in the center, whether moving to the hybrid cloud, or anything. So, starting with security. That’s the proverbial thing of what keeps you up at night. So we’re trying to do what we can to make sure that cybersecurity is a top priority. Second, it’s putting the patient, whether a member of our health plan or a patient in a UPMC facility, or a member of a senior community whose needs we’re addressing through Medicare Advantage plans—you don’t do technology to people, but to give people the opportunity to do what they need to do. MU did a fantastic job of digitizing an industry that was very paper-intense. But we didn’t necessarily focus on their workflow, so clinician workflow is exactly what we’re focusing on now, which ties into what we’re trying to do with Microsoft.

Again, it ties around the data. We’re still on the journey around big data. One thing that we have at UPMC is an abundance of data, being an integrated delivery system. We touch the payer world, the pharmacy world, the lab world, the patient care world. So tying everything into that actionable layer of data, being able to liberate that data in a very secure way, so that we can enhance the lives of patients. It ultimately all comes full circle. It’s not a matter of whether this industry will transform, it’s transforming as we speak.