SAP's bold new goal: making precision medicine a reality

It just rolled out a brand-new platform tailored for healthcare

After more than 40 years of focusing primarily on software for large businesses, SAP is taking a bold step in a new direction: precision medicine.

Targeting healthcare organizations, life sciences companies and research institutions, the German software giant on Tuesday rolled out SAP Foundation for Health, a brand-new platform based on its Hana in-memory engine that's aimed at helping such organizations uncover insights from patient data in real time.

"Our strategy is very simple but very ambitious," said Dinesh Vandayar, vice president of personalized medicine for SAP. "Our vision is to create a health network enabling personalized medicine."

SAP also unveiled SAP Medical Research Insights, the first accompanying application, with a focus on clinical researchers and life sciences companies.

SAP isn't the first enterprise software company to dip its toes into the healthcare waters recently: Just a few months ago, Salesforce also made a foray into the market.

But SAP has a particularly personal motivation: company CEO Bill McDermott lost an eye this summer in a freak accident. Though work on the new initiative had begun long beforehand, it gained new prominence among SAP's priorities following that event, Vandayar said.

"Since the accident, his renewed focus on this is at another level," he explained. "It's really driven us to focus more on this area. He absolutely believes SAP can play a bigger role in improving patient outcomes."

SAP is also not entirely new to the healthcare world, noted Greg McStravick, the company's global head of database and technology.

"SAP grew up automating core business processes, but we are not neophytes in healthcare," McStravick told an audience Tuesday at an SAP Spotlight event in New York introducing the new initiative.

More than seven thousand healthcare providers in 88 countries already use SAP's existing applications to automate their business processes, he added.

Still, there's clearly an unmet need for tailored technology.

"If you look at the market today and the entities that support medicine, there is really very limited exchange of data," Vandayar said.

That lack of sharing can have a direct effect on patient outcomes, he added, citing an example in which a successful drug for leukemia was later found to cause major heart problems in the children who took it.

"Today there is virtually no exchange of information even within a single entity let alone across them," he said. "Our vision is to provide a common platform and data model so that this exchange of information happens more easily."

The new SAP Foundation for Health platform is designed to offer a flexible and extensible clinical data warehouse model along with industry-focused data integration management and real-time analytics capable of handling both structured and unstructured data.

Life sciences companies and healthcare organizations can use it to develop and target new drugs, devices and services as well as to match patients with trials, the company said.

One of the industry-specific modifications that had to be made to SAP's existing Hana technology arose from the fact that Hana's natural language processing engine couldn't initially support medical terminology.

SAP built a new ontology model for medicine to make that work, Vandayar said, along with a common data model for clinical data and genomics.

"We believe this common data model is crucial," he explained. "If you don't get the data in the right format, it's hard to get any insights."

That problem will only get worse as the volumes of genomic and lifestyle data increase in the coming years thanks to falling sensor costs and the rise of the Internet of Things.

SAP provides full transparency into the data and gives users complete control over how it is used, processed and reported, it said.

The new SAP Medical Research Insights app, meanwhile, aims to help researchers integrate clinical, genomic and lifestyle data and then analyze it easily. They can slice and dice data, view it in timeline format and drill down to the level of a single patient, Vandayar said.

SAP's new technology has already been in testing for several months at numerous organizations, he added: "Some of the customers we spoke to claim that we do in a matter of minutes what used to take them several weeks or months."

Healthcare is one of the last industries to be digitized, largely because of regulatory issues and the particulars of the data, said Carlos Bustamante, a professor of genetics and biomedical data science at the Stanford School of Medicine, which has worked with SAP on genomic data analysis.

"Particularly in this country, electronic health records have basically been shoe-horned on top of billing -- they began essentially as a way to streamline the reimbursement process," explained Bustamante in an interview at the SAP event.

Yet the potential is enormous, he said.

"From Stanford's point of view, we think there are large questions to be answered at the intersection of complex data and analytics," Bustamante said, citing the example of population health in particular.

The challenges, however, may be equally considerable, including regulation, privacy, data security and societal implications.

"The digital revolution is a double-edged sword," Bustamante said. "Just because I can measure every aspect of your every muscle twitch, does that mean I should?"

If it's possible for a healthcare provider to predict a patient's stroke, it's almost a moral obligation for them to do so, he said, but the downside -- increasingly invasive monitoring that could lead toward a "nanny state" -- may also be significant.

"Where do we draw the line?" he said. "It's a question we all have to think about. I think we're only beginning to comprehend what the societal impacts are."

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