UPMC Plans $2B Investment To Build “Digitally-Based” Specialty Hospitals

Posted on November 20, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare editor and analyst with 25 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center has announced plans to spend $2 billion to build three new specialty hospitals with a digital focus. Its plans include building the UPMC Heart and Transplant Hospital, UPMC Hillman Cancer Hospital and UPMC Vision and Rehabilitation Hospital. UPMC already runs the existing specialty hospitals, Magee-Womens Hospital, Western in Psychiatric Institute and Clinic and Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

UPMC is already one of the largest integrated health delivery networks in the United States. It’s $13 billion system includes more than 25 hospitals, a 3-million-member health plan and 3,600 physicians. If its new specialty centers actually represent a new breed of digital-first hospital, and help it further dominate its region, this could only add to its already-outsized clout.

So what is a “digitally-based” hospital, and what makes it different than, say, other hospitals well along the EMR adoption curve? After all, virtually every hospital today relies on a backbone of health IT applications, manages patient clinical data in an EMR and stores and stores and shares imagines in digital form.   Some are still struggling to integrate or replace legacy technologies, while others are adopting cutting-edge platforms, but going digital is mission-critical for everyone these days.

What’s interesting about UPMC’s plans, however, is that the new hospitals will be designed as digitally-based facilities from day one. UPMC is working with Microsoft to design these “digital hospitals of the future,” building on the two entities’ existing research collaboration with Microsoft and its Azure cloud platform.

The Azure relationship dates back to February of this year, when UPMC struck a deal with Microsoft to do some joint technology research. The agreement builds on both UPMC’s fairly impressive record of tech innovation and Microsoft’s healthcare AI capabilities, genomics and machine learning capabilities. For example, in working with Microsoft, UPMC gets access to Microsoft’s health chat bot technology, which is being deployed elsewhere to help patient self-triage before they interact with the doctor for a video visit.

I’d love to offer you specific information on how these new digitally-oriented will be designed, and more importantly how the functioning will differ from otherwise-wired hospitals that didn’t start out that way, but I don’t think the two partners are ready to spill the beans. Clearly, they’re going to tell you all of this is the new hotness, but nobody’s provided me with any examples of how this will truly improve on existing models of digital hospital technology. I just don’t think they’re that far along with the project yet.

Obviously, UPMC isn’t spending $2 billion lightly, so its leadership must believe the new digital model will offer a big payoff. I hope they know something we don’t about the ROI potential for this effort. It seems likely that if nothing else, that technology investment alone won’t drive that big a rate of return. Clearly, other major factors are in play here.