The first president for Mayo Clinic Platform, a technology project that’s seen as key to the clinic’s future, is not simply a physician with expertise in digital health. Dr. John Halamka and his wife, Kathy, currently run Unity Farm, an animal sanctuary that’s located at their home in suburban Boston that includes 30 acres of agricultural production plus a cidery and winery. From the farm, Halamka plans to regularly commute to-and-from Rochester by way of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Among other leadership positions, Halamka ran a prominent health technology center in Massachusetts, served more than 20 years as chief information officer at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and taught innovation at Harvard Medical School.
Q: You’re a physician, but you also bring an interest in technology. Why both?
A: I was born in Des Moines, Iowa. I moved to the West Coast in 1968. My father was an engineer at TRW, today it would be known as Raytheon. Back in the ’60s, these defense contractors in Southern California, whenever their technology didn’t test quite right, they threw it away. … When I was like 10, I would be going to swap meets and picking up this digital technology. I taught myself analog and digital logic and microprocessors, so by the age of 12 I was developing systems. I always wanted to go into medicine and loved biology, but had this great exposure to technology as a child. … All of my adult career has been working at the intersection of care delivery and digital health.
Q: What is health care getting right with technology and what is health care not yet getting right?
A: I worked in the Bush administration for four years and the Obama administration for six years, leading what were some of these technology panels that helped us figure out the regulations that would get electronic health records adopted. So, what did we get right? Well, we got adoption of electronic health records, that’s true. But I think clinicians, if you talk to most doctors, feel like they’ve burdened the clinician by requiring too much typing. We generate a lot of data, but we don’t necessarily turn that data into action. So to me, we’re at this perfect storm where the doctors say we need something more, and the data exists and the technology is mature, so we can start turning these digital tools into really valuable assets to our doctors and to our patients instead of burdens.
Q: What is Mayo Clinic Platform?
A: Back in the day we used to say: ‘Oh, I have an apartment to sublet.’ And we would go down to our neighborhood newspaper, and we would take out a personal ad and that personal ad would be read by 100 people and of course every newspaper did it differently and everything you did to sublet your room was a one-off. Well, today we have this platform called AirBNB and millions of people can list millions of rooms to be seen by hundreds of millions of people with low cost and little effort.
There are many examples where I show you how a platform in health care could improve quality and safety and access and efficiency. The three initial projects of the platform are called home hospital, advanced digital diagnostics and clinical data analytics.
Q: Can you describe the digital analytics platform?
A: Let me give you a personal example. My wife was diagnosed with stage 3A breast cancer in December of 2011. She was 50 at the time. She is Korean. The question is: What is the best therapy for a 50-year-old Korean with stage 3A breast cancer? There’s never been a clinical trial. There’s never been a study. But there are millions of [similar] patients. …With a machine learning model, you can say: Based on the patients of the past, we can predict the best treatment platform for the future. That’s the kind of thing that the digital analytics platform does — protects the privacy of the patients of the past, while helping improve the care and refine the science and innovate for the future.
Q: A platform might be popular for its unique capabilities, but is Mayo’s brand important for getting people to use it?
A: Absolutely. Mayo Clinic has been one of the most trusted sources of health care information on the internet. The idea of the platform is to go beyond just information — it’s not just something you read, it’s data services. So, it’s the apps you run that are going to use the platform to help you navigate the health system and the brand must be trusted. It must be trusted for accuracy and for security.
Q: Why do you run a farm sanctuary?
A: When my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, she said: ‘I don’t know if this is going to be OK or not. I’ve always wanted chickens.’ So we sold our small home [and moved where] … there are no restrictions on farming. And so we got some chickens. And then we got some ducks. And some geese. And some guinea fowl. And then a friend said, ‘Oh did you hear about a herd of alpaca that needs to be rescued in Maine?’ And we said, ‘Well, OK.’ And then we brought in the llamas to guard the alpacas. And then people said, ‘Oh, you’re a rescue, we have these horses — we have these cows, we’ve got these pigs. Today we are the largest animal sanctuary in New England with 250 rescued animals living their natural lives.