Penn Medicine’s big data system triggers early detection of life-threatening infections

Insights drawn from a massively parallel computer cluster loaded with vast amounts of data help doctors develop new approaches to patient care

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Healthcare organizations are latching on to big data for everything from population health management to genomic research. For Penn Medicine, the healthcare system and medical school affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, those technology advances are touching patients in very real ways.

A team of clinicians and medical informatics experts at Penn Medicine is using big data techniques to power innovations in clinical quality improvement, genomic research, data visualization, diagnostic apps and even the study of social media.

This big data approach has already produced one significant success: The Penn team has improved the ability of clinicians to predict which patients are at risk of developing sepsis, a life-threatening complication of an infection. Those patients can now be identified 24 hours earlier than before the algorithm was introduced.

Led by Mike Draugelis, chief data scientist at Penn Medicine, the team uses insights drawn from a massively parallel computer cluster that stores a huge volume of data to build prototypes of new care pathways. Those pathways are then tested with patients and the results fed back into algorithms so that the computer can learn from its mistakes. Penn Medicine, which opened the nation's first school of medicine in 1765, is among the winners of IDGE's Digital Edge 25 awards for its big data project.

Draugelis and his colleagues work in the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. On the academic research side, the university's medical school has launched an Institute for Biomedical Informatics (IBI) to conduct basic research using big data techniques. Announced in 2013, IBI is now coming together a few months after naming Jason Moore, who founded a similar institute at Dartmouth, as its director. IBI will focus its efforts on precision medicine, a hot field that is starting to take off as genomic sequencing costs drop.

The effort to link genomic differences with "phenotypes" — the variations in patients' characteristics and diseases — has been underway for five years, notes William Hanson, M.D., who is chief medical information officer and vice president of Penn Medicine, and serves as a member of IBI. But he says he sees this kind of research quickly accelerating. (To hear more about the UPenn project, check out this video interview with Hanson and Glenn Fala, senior director of software development at Penn Medicine Information Services. The video also appears at the top of this story.)

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