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HIStalk Interviews Daniel Sands MD, Cisco Systems and Harvard Medical School

September 19, 2007 Interviews 1 Comment


A couple of readers suggested I talk to Danny Sands. He’s an assistant clinical professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and senior medical informatics director for Cisco Systems. If anything interesting happens in the industry, he will hear about it while wearing one of those two significant hats. I have to figure out what whole bicoastal, two paychecks thing since he seems to be having a ball.

Dr. Sands earned his medical degree from Ohio State and a master’s from Harvard. He did his medical residency at Boston City Hospital and an informatics fellowship at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He’s also on AMIA’s board and is a fellow in both the American College of Physicians and the American College of Medical Informatics.

Thanks to Danny for spending time with me.

Describe your job at Cisco.

My position is as the senior medical informatics director. I work in a part of the organization called the Internet Business Solutions Group, or IBSG.

Cisco has always been organized around engineering and sales. There was no verticalization of the organization at all. Five or six years ago, the company started to understand how it could do verticals better and created IBSG. We have maybe six to eight verticals and healthcare is one of the most mature.

IBSG can be thought of as the global, no-fee consulting organization of Cisco. We’re vertical-specific. We do consulting in a limited way with important customers around the world. In healthcare, our job is to help Cisco understand healthcare in a very deep way and to let our customers know we understand healthcare.

Given our size, our consulting engagements aren’t like Accenture’s. They’re just six to eight months. We work with CxOs to understand business and clinical problems and develop solutions, often employing technology. We think deeply about the industry, always thinking about what’s happening in healthcare and healthcare IT and how we can effect change in healthcare through our writings and working with Congress and ministries of health around the world. We’re transforming health to practice in the most clinically safe and high quality and cost-effective manner possible.

Everybody’s talking about Cisco’s recent announcement about its healthcare growth. What’s driving that growth?

Healthcare is an industry in which organizations have under-invested in technology for so many years. Back when computers were just becoming ubiquitous, every industry that viewed itself as information-intensive was investing in infrastructure to put in the fundamental applications. Now, they’re investing 8-10% of revenue and doing very sophisticated things.

Healthcare has not viewed itself as an information-intensive industry, which is quite a shock to those practicing in it. It hasn’t viewed itself that way, except for billing, and hasn’t built up infrastructure and put in fundamental applications and databases to deliver care effectively.

Healthcare is investing 2.5% of revenue and still falling behind. For years, it was even less, under 2%, and there’s a lot of catching up to do. Many organizations are behind the eight ball and it will take awhile to catch up. They’re beginning to understand that this is an information-intensive industry, and for quality metrics, they will need technology.

There’s a huge market in healthcare. What we’re interested in doing isn’t just selling stuff, but helping people do business and clinical work effectively. Cisco started investing several years ago because we saw the technology was underutilized and we could really help the industry.

Does Cisco manage healthcare the same as other vertical markets?

Yes. The IBSG has verticals in retail, public sector, entertainment, financial services … so we have a bunch of these things. In this consulting group, we have 225 peple around the world, so it’s not a huge organization. Intel has more than 200 in just their digital health organization.

My counterparts do similar things to what we do. Some of them do more traditional consulting instead of the thought creation we often do. So, healthcare is pushing into areas that not all the verticals have done yet. We also have a sales force dedicated to healthcare.

I think we go about things differently because we’re offering to be a partner that understands healthcare. In our group, we have expertise across the spectrum: healthcare consulting, nurses, nurse practitioner. People who understand networking, homecare … someone from life sciences, someone in the payer market. We have a breadth of expertise becaue we’re coming at it from so many different sides.

What are the biggest technology challenges in healthcare?

The biggest challenge is the lack of capital to invest. Still today. If we look at organizations, larger healthcare organizations will spend more money and will be more forward-thinking. Intermountain, New York Presbyterian, those centers of excellence. We have these name brand organizations that have clearly spent a lot on IT and have done neat things.

You have others that big who have the margins to invest. You have others that are struggling financially. Hospitals are running near-negative margins. If you’re in a business with no margins, you’re just trying to keep your head above water.

It’s similar in practices. They mirror hospitals in that larger ones have infrastructure and staff and revenue, but in the smaller practices where most care is delivered, no margin, no infrastructure. The biggest problem is appropriate investment in technology.

One barrier is a misalignment of incentives. Who is investing the money and who is benefiting? Clearly, if a hospital invests in technology, they need to see some return on investment. Some may come from reduced cost of handling records. It’s a lot harder for practices to make these justifications. Larger institutions are doing better in being able to step back and look at their issues. We’re focusing on large enterprise users for that reason.

We have a very hands-on business in healthcare. We can’t replace people, but we must keep them in mind all the time. We need to remember that people have a limited capacity to change, so you have to help people apply the technology in their work. Healthcare is hands-on and so is introducing technology into it, so we want it to be done appropriately. There have been too many situations where hospitals have invested money and their projects haven’t been successful, often because they didn’t involve clinical staff from the beginning.

Is “medical grade network” a technology or a marketing approach?

That is a technology. When I talk about setting an appropriate infrastrucrtre, that’s what I’m talking about. It is an architecture for building a network that is resilient and reliable and secure and has survivability, those things we need in a mission-critical environment.

You can’t afford to have a network go down in healthcare. It must be hardened and tough. This is like plumbing or running water and electricity and needs to be that reliable. We say the fourth utility is a converged network. It brings together all the low-voltage circuits into a very reliable, robust network that’s expandable and can be managed. You need to be able to grow a network as you add more functionality and nodes. Sometimes that means adding to it, sometimes shutting parts down without bringing down the whole network.

You were at Beth Israel in 2002 when network failures caused what might be the biggest patient-impacting systems outage in history. Is it ironic that you’re working for Cisco?

It’s a great point. I tell that story often. Fortunately, I had no responsibility for the network management there. [laughs] The situation was that nobody was minding the infrastructure.

A network is a living, breathing entity. One needs to not only create an architecture, but maintain it to ensure it performs well. At Beth Israel, we weren’t investing in maintaining the infrastructure. Not only was it no longer architected correctly, it wasn’t managed over time, so it was vulnerable.

That sort of travesty could not occur with what we’re architecting now. I’m sure that will never happen again at Beth Israel. [laughs]

Wireless networking in hospitals is suddenly prevalent. Have caregivers and clinical software vendors embraced the concept that computer users aren’t chained to desks any more?

That’s one of the big waves that’s coming. We no longer have to think in terms of desktops, but can think of devices. Whether tablet or desktop or biomedical engineering equipment, everything becomes a node on the network. That’s the way that more progressive IT groups are thinking about things. That doesn’t mean there’s no role for the desktop PC, but there are roles for other wireless devices.

We need to think more about untethering hospital personnel from walls so they can interact with their hospital information system while sitting at a patient’s bedside. It could be a wireless phone so patients can communicate with them. Because it’s an IP phone, it’s part of the network and can share any information from the network. We can ID a patient, get a test result.

It shouldn’t matter what kind of device it is, whether it’s a wireless phone or tablet computer or PDA or desktop. All of these can interoperate on the medical grade network. The last mobility trend in hospital was COWs. Those are fine, but there are a lot of places you can’t wheel one in. It’s nice to have something that’s truly portable. The interoperability becomes important.

As we introduce new varieties of devices, whether phone or PDA or tablet, we’ll need to reinvent some of these applications, creating applications that are customized to that form factor. We have already seen some of this, like PatientKeeper and MercuryMD. We will have to see more hospital information systems that run on a tablet computer, for example.

Cisco is building unified communications. It doesn’t matter what device you’re using. You can communicate with all. Open a directory and communicate with anyone in whatever manner they want to be communicated with. Dr. Smith may say they’d like to be text messaged first. Everybody can have their own preferences. That’s a more effective way to start communication with people, by not annoying them by contacting them in a way they don’t like.

They can seamlessly move from a text sesson to a phone system or a collaborative session on the Web where we’re sharing a screen. Unified communications will change healthcare. So much of what we do in healthcare is communicating, yet our technologies are primitive.

Give me the Cisco perspective of the Cisco-sponsored HIMSS Community for Connected Health.

We wanted to form a community of people thinking about the connected health concept. That’s almost the form of a user group, but it’s a community. People can share ideas with each other and with us. I don’t know how this worked with HIMSS, but we’re really just trying to reach out and think about community.

As an aside, Cisco has embraced the idea of Web 2.0 and groupware and collaboration. We’re trying to experiment with that in many different ways, like wikis and a new directory that’s almost like Facebook. We think the future is collaboration. When I watch my teenaged daughters on the computer, they’re collaborating all the time. They don’t use traditional means, even e-mail. They skip that and go right to Facebook and MySpace. We’re trying to do these things in Cisco.

Cisco tries to do the things that it gets other people to do. If we think it’s a coming trend, we try in on ourselves first. Another example is Second Life. We have a community there, where we’re trying to push the envelope. We don’t think we can continue to grow the way we’re growing unless we’re collaborative.

John Chambers says he wants us to reduce our travel 20% over the next year using the technologies we sell. TelePresence is a totally game-changing technology. It is totally unlike videocoferencing. It does what videoconferencing promised to do. You really hear people in high definition, see people and even see them sweating, and feel like you met the people on the other side of the table. It’s almost entirely transparent to the users. We’re not really aware it’s there. The problem with videoconferencing is that you’re always aware it’s there, with jerky motion and synchronization problems.

We’re using TelePresence internally. The first customer was Cisco. We put it in all our major offices all over the world and we’re encouraged to use it so we don’t have to fly anywhere. I’ve been able to avert flights all over the country by using TelePresence.

Are today’s electronic medical records systems too tied to the paradigm that physicians have to enter their own data to give and receive value from those systems?

There are many potential sources of information. Some are machines, some are people, and some are people and machine at other institutions. We have to figure out what is the most efficient way to get information from these places and present ot to the clinicians.

There is a large amount of information that we acquire in the course of interaction with patients. Much of it has to be entered by us, one way or another. There’s a large body that clinicians are responsible for entering that should come directly from the source. It would be preposterous to look at a printout of a lab test and type that into a computer. Likewise, why is it that we interview a patient and enter their information into the clinical information system? There’s a practical barrier if the patient is lying down with a gunshot wound, but in many situations, we can take advantage of the patient. The patient is the most important yet underutilized source of information in healthcare.

We’re often very keyboard-centric. There are lots of ways I can interact with a computer – a stylus on a tablet; dictating and having it trabscribed by computer or human; and typing, which can be templated or free-texted.

There’s another aspect to your question, which is that our information systems tend to be very doctor-focused, or let’s say clinician-focused. Just as we don’t ask our patients to enter information into a computer to help their health, we often don’t share the information in the computer with our patients. Patients need to play a bigger role in healthcare.

We don’t think of them this way, but patients are our customers. That leads to problems where we don’t share information and don’t make it easy for patients to make an appointment or get a referral or get test results. We should do these if we’re truly patient-focused. When patients have access to information, it can be more satisfying to both doctor and health.

The physician brings a complementary skill set. You’re an expert in you. If we have a common database and bring our expertise together, we can make tremendous things happen and improve the way we deliver care. There’s some preliminary evidence that patients engaged in this way have better health outcomes.

What about other information types, such as video and voice?

We need to be storing more rich multimedia information about our patients. The first wave was the PACS movement and that’s terrific. It’s amazing as a doctor to be able to see the image instead of just reading the text report. We need more of that. PACS was developed separately from the HIS.

We need a convergence of text and multimedia and it shouldn’t just be radiology images. Cardiology images, photos of a wound, video of a patient walking, pathology images, voice files -– all should be part of the record.

That necessitates data acquisition that we don’t have right now. We’re lucky in a clinic if there’s a digital camera around. We need to think in terms of multimedia acquisition devices. There are digital ophthalmoscopes and otoscopes. We need to acquire that information, capture it, and store it in the record. That requires a new set of input devices and interfaces to the hospital system so that multimedia objects can be stored and retrieved as part of the record, not as a separate system.

A digital image is not only far more effective at delivering information, you can manipulate it. It also requires efficient storage and an efficient network to convey those large objects. Those last two areas are what Cisco is interested in. We do storage area networks to store information more cost effectively. We’ve also pushed network convergence, where video can travel across the network. We’re partnering with some of the big HIT vendors to develop new functionality.

You were an advocate of electronic patient-physician communication. What’s the status of those projects?

A lot of doctors haven’t yet embraced the technology for the same reasons – time, liability, and reimbursement.

An exciting trend is the number of practices and institutions offering patient portal services that offer patient-provider communication. Kaiser rolled out Epic MyChart to millions of patients. That’s huge. It’s far and away the largest deployment of that kind in the world.

We’re seeing adoption among larger practices and more enlightented healthcare institutions in deploying patient portals that provide secure communications. I choose to look at it as a positive trend, even though figures haven’t taken off like I would have thought. The volume of messages a doctor gets from patients is very modest, even when you’re not charging a fee. At Beth Israel, for every 100 patients registered on the system, they’ll generate less than one e-mail a day to the doctor.

What IP-connected devices will have the most impact on healthcare delivery in the next 5-10 years?

Home care. I think there is no question that we need to be reaching into patients’ homes. That’s where patients are sick with chronic conditions. I think we’lll go beyond that and catch patients earlier in their disease or when they’re pre-symptomatic. It will be commonplace to interface with your set-top box or glucometer.

Home care, along with nursing homes, is quite technologically backward. It’s a real shame because these are our most vulberable and sickest people. These will be new markets where we can make a huge impact.

Location-based services, like tracking of things in a hospital,will be successful. Once you’ve deployed a robust wireless network, you have two ancillary benefits. One is the ability to do tracking, or location-based services. I can put a tag on my wheelchairs and infusion devices and code carts and track them throughout the institution through the wireless access points. It’s exciting that you can find out where the equipment is that you need.

You can also create a second wireless network for guest use. When you’re going to visit someone, you can connect your laptop to a public network that’s separate from the secure internal network. Most hospitals aren’t set up this way. They have one wireless network that’s for staff. Offering this for patients, especially for those in units like cancer units where they’re in for a long time, is a great service.

Any final thoughts?

This is a very exciting time to be in healthcare IT. Because of the robustness of the technologies and the ability to implement them effectively, it’s a tremendous time and I’m excited to be part of the industry and Cisco.

I really salute all the people working in this space. We need to remember that we need all kinds of players to effectively implement these systems. It’s not something an IT department alone can do. Vendors, C-level executivess, providers …  it’s an important collaboration pushing IT out to physicians, nurses, and patients. If we do this intelligently, we can make a huge difference. That’s why I’m in this business.

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Currently there is "1 comment" on this Article:

  1. Dr. Daniel Sands,

    Your interview with Histalk is good. But you are not mentoined the importance of the ELECTRONIC MEDICAL RECORDS. First all the Hospitals & Clinics groups should install EMR. Countries like South Korea most Hospitals & Clinical groups have adopted EMR. But country like U.S. EMR adoption rate is very low. Persons like you advice U.S. Federal Government make it a mandatory.

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