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Inside the New York Digital Health Accelerator

In New York state, public entities and private, profit-driven financial firms hope to lead the charge into the future of digital health care.

The phrase "public-private partnership" gets thrown around a lot these days, with varying degrees of meaning and power. But in New York state, public and nonprofit entities and financial firms seem to be adding teeth to the term by teaming up to, they hope, shape the future of digital health care.

In April, the nonprofit New York eHealth Collaborative (NYeC) and the New York City Investment Fund (a consortium of Wall Street venture capital firms) announced the creation of an initiative called the New York Digital Health Accelerator. These investors have agreed to pony up $4.2 million to 12 or more companies that are working on e-health technology.

Those companies, in turn, will team up with healthcare providers such as New York-Presbyterian Hospital, North Shore-LIJ Health System, NYU Langone Medical Center and other institutions that stretch, like that old Erie Canal song says, from Albany to Buffalo, to create real-world applications that will work within the state's already existing health information exchange (HIE) parameters.

The initiative has already attracted even more investment dollars from other firms wanting a piece of the action, says David Whitlinger, NYeC's executive director. His group became something of a matchmaker in this particular public-private courtship between investors and state health stakeholders.

Whitlinger says his group understood that "we could spend millions, if not billions, of dollars trying to figure [the best way to adopt health IT], and it could succeed or it could fail. Why not tap into the strong innovation happening in New York, and if there is a there there, there's also a business opportunity. Let's open it to the marketplace."

NYeC took the idea to the New York Department of Health (NYDOH) Commissioner Nirav R. Shah, who introduced them to the leadership of the New York City Investment Fund.

"By coincidence, they were in the process of looking at health care as a growth opportunity," Whitlinger says, calling the partnership "a marriage made in heaven."

"We want a rich ecosystem of applications that are innovative and cost-effective. The investment community is looking for the next growth sector in terms of paying customers and the developers are looking [for capital] to meet those needs."

That first blind date happened last fall, and by spring NYeC, NYDOH, and the New York City Investment Fund had hammered out the details. Developers are applying now, and "the response has been amazing," Whitlinger says. They will focus on what he calls "three areas for great innovation":

Coordination of workflow: Helping multiple clinicians care for the same patient is a critical component of cost reduction. "As we move from a fee-for-service model to managed care, physicians will be rewarded for efficient care, but right now they need better tools to do that," Whitlinger says. This directly ties in with Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Medicaid Redesign Team, which he created to implement a "health homes" model to facilitate efficient care and communication among health providers.

Patient engagement: Enabling patients to become engaged with their own care through the Internet, iPods, Facebook, handheld devices or other technology, is critical to promote prevention, wellness and disease management.

Analytics: "This is the boring area," Whitlinger confesses. But proper data analysis is sorely lacking in big picture health care, and technology can help public health officials and providers get a handle on the best, most cost-effective ways to treat the population.

The winners will be chosen in July or August. Not all of the applicants are currently based in New York, but if chosen they will need to set up an office in the state. "If they want to incubate a product with NYU or Presbyterian Hospital, they understand they need head count here," he says.

If it works as planned, developers will find solutions to some vexing health care challenges (and make money), providers will deliver more effective and efficient care (and save money), the VC firms will make money, and the state will save money. It's a win-win-win-win that, as Whitlinger says, "puts New York at the forefront" of health care's electronic future.