An ambitious health care research initiative launched last year between Optum Health and the Mayo Clinic has landed seven new partners with interests in public health, pharmaceuticals and the biosciences.
The addition of groups that include pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and the University of Minnesota Nursing School is a sign that newly formed Optum Labs, based in Cambridge, Mass., is working to swiftly assemble the pieces for what it describes as an open center for research and innovation.
At its heart is one of the world's largest and most robust health care databases, which includes de-identified claims data on more than 150 million patients that can be linked with 30 million electronic health records.
"We believe that looking at the same problem from different directions is the way to get to solutions," said Optum Labs Chief Executive Dr. Paul Bleicher. He said the diversity of the new partners will accelerate the pace of research already underway, which includes 20 major studies.
The other organizations joining the effort are the American Medical Group Association, which represents medium to large medical groups and accounts for about a third of the nation's physicians; the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a biomedical research company based in Troy, N.Y.; Lehigh Valley Health Network, an academic medical school and health system in Allentown, Pa.; the Boston University School of Public Health; and Tufts Medical Center, also in Boston.
AARP, an advocacy group for seniors with more than 37 million members, joined Optum Labs in December.
By giving some of the nation's biggest minds access to big data, the leaders of Optum Labs aim to find new ways to treat and prevent complex diseases as well as address the nation's most costly and devastating chronic conditions.
Mining the proprietary database already is enabling unprecedented leaps in research, said the Mayo Clinic's Nilay Shah, the scientific director at Optum Labs. Queries that once might have taken analysts two to four weeks to answer, now can be run in 40 seconds, he said.
"Let's say a new drug was approved five years ago, and you want to look at the rate of hospitalization compared to a similar drug available prior to that," he said. "The tool goes into 150 million people, finds people on both of those drugs, matching age and sex and quickly runs rates of hospitalization for the group or some other outcome, such as side effects. … The data will provide a whole new resource that hasn't ever been tapped."
The University of Minnesota Nursing School was invited into the fold because of its long-standing focus on medical informatics, school officials said, but also because hard data is sorely lacking about the role nurses play in health outcomes.
For instance, insurance claims data routinely lump nursing care into the hospital room charge, noted Thomas Clancy, the U nursing school's assistant dean for faculty practices, partnerships and professional development.
Health data available through Optum Labs could help quantify the impact of patient education or the time spent talking with patients about medications before they leave the hospital.
"It gives us a picture of the true impact of nursing care, not just the impact of say, pharmacy or surgical procedures, but the actual care that's done," he said. "That's why it's so exciting. Up until now it has been very difficult to get that data."
Connie White Delaney, dean of the U's nursing school and an expert in health informatics, said graduate students likely will join research teams that will explore such questions as what nursing intervention can do to reduce hospital readmissions, or the long-term impact of mental health counseling and other efforts on the health of someone with diabetes or another chronic illness.
"This is all about accelerated discovery and innovation," Delaney said.
Optum Labs opened in January 2013 in the center of a health care market brimming with academic medical centers and hospital systems. The venture is part of Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group's Optum unit, which specializes in information and health IT services.
There is no fee to join the collaborative, but various partners likely will play different roles in mining the data and contributing to it, as well as in applying for grants to further research. The findings are expected to be published in medical and science journals.
"It's a very innovative platform," said Ana Gupte, an analyst with Leerink Swann, which had been a private equity partner in a company called Humedica, a data analytics firm that UnitedHealth purchased last year and is a contributor to the clinical database for Optum Labs.
Gupte said the research could potentially turn into a moneymaker, if the results could be sold to insurance companies, the government or even health care systems that are being forced to take more financial responsibility for reducing readmissions under health reform efforts.
"If they can mine that information that resides not only in Optum's legacy platform with the Humedica asset and then tie in with Mayo's clinical capabilities, they could have some very meaningful insights into health care cost and quality and outcomes in various disease states, and with various drugs that might be playing into it from a therapeutic perspective. There's a lot they could do."
UnitedHealth, which operates the nation's largest insurance company, is providing most of the claims data. The Mayo Clinic is supplying about 5 million patient records, but Optum Labs continues to collect data from hospital systems around the country.
Optum Labs' Bleicher said the goal isn't just to "do research and write papers," but to improve the nation's health and make fundamental changes in medical spending.
"It's about creating a change in the system based upon this … and making sure the best of those changes actually gets widely distributed and used."