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Highmark, CMU team to cut medical costs, improve care

| Monday, June 24, 2013, 11:42 a.m.

Carnegie Mellon University may not have a medical school, but insurer Highmark Inc. is betting researchers at the school known for engineering and computer science can change health care for the better.

Highmark on Monday announced an $11 million, two-year partnership with CMU and its Allegheny Health Network hospitals that calls for researchers to mine mountains of data for ways to cut costs and improve care.

Highmark CEO Bill Winkenwerder said the Disruptive Health Technology Institute, initiated six months ago and led by Alan Russell, won't be tethered to political and academic considerations that constrain medical schools. Russell founded the University of Pittsburgh's McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

Russell, who holds an endowed chair at CMU's Institute for Complex Engineered Systems and an appointment as a professor of biomedical engineering, is a senior adviser to Highmark.

“If ever an industry was in need of disruption, it's health care,” Russell said.

More than 95 percent of new health care ideas and innovations “never reach the patient,” said Russell, because of economic, regulatory or scientific hurdles. Thus, he said, the institute will select its projects “with speed in mind.” Patients should see results of the institute's projects “within at least two years,” he said.

“Millions of people are alive today because of the impact of science and engineering on how we treat disease,” Russell said.

But University of Pennsylvania health care economist Mark Pauly questioned whether engineering can cure what ails America's health care system.

“As an economist, I'm a little skeptical of engineering solutions. I think most of our problems are bad incentives for patients, doctors and hospitals, and we haven't had the political will to change that,” Pauly said.

“There is a large number of insurers and health care managers who believe there has to be gold in their databases because they have so much data,” he said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com. Thomas Olson is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at 412-320-7854 or at tolson@tribweb.com.

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