Cluster bid aims to grow Massachusetts digital health industry

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BOSTON >> With a smartphone switched on or a wearable device slipped around their wrist, hospital patients, elite athletes and anyone else can monitor their health around-the-clock. These and other health technologies also create a place for Massachusetts to seize a foothold and establish itself as a leader in a multi-billion dollar emerging industry, Gov. Charlie Baker said Thursday.

"Believe me, the whole world, with regard to wearable devices, is about to get very interesting," Baker said Thursday as he announced a new public-private partnership. "And digital health is going to have a huge role to play in all that, and we want to make sure that Massachusetts, and the companies and the businesses and the organizations and the institutions that are here are on the forefront of that."

Aiming to position the state as a global leader in the industry that combines health care and information technology, state and private sector leaders gathered at Boston Children's Hospital to launch an initiative bringing together a "stakeholder cluster" in digital health.

The program will include a Boston-based innovation hub and efforts to link entrepreneurs with hospitals and other institutions in hopes of more quickly bringing new technology to market.

Electronic medical records, care systems, wearable consumer devices, payment management, data analytics and telemedicine are all elements of the digital health sector. According to statistics cited by Baker's office, the field represents a $32 billion market opportunity.

The initiative was hailed Thursday as a way to create jobs, and improve health care in the Bay State and beyond.

"From the early adoption of [electronic health record] systems to the foresight of our hospitals and government at promoting integrated care, Massachusetts has long been the national leader in providing world-class health care," House Speaker Robert DeLeo said. "We can only continue this upward trajectory if we enhance our focus on e-health."

Massachusetts has roughly 250 existing digital health companies, according to the governor's office. That number includes 15 of the 100 largest revenue earners, Baker said, giving the state "a pretty big footprint" as a starting point.

Baker, who previously worked as state secretary of health and human services and as CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, said the "building blocks" for a digital health care system exist in Massachusetts. He said a main focus of the cluster initiative will be to "tie those strands together in innovative ways," bringing together the academic, medical, pharmaceutical, life sciences and tech fields.

The Massachusetts eHealth Institute, a state agency, will partner with the city of Boston and the nonprofit public policy group Massachusetts Challenge Partnership to create the innovation hub, which will offer work and event space and networking opportunities for digital health startups. Startup accelerator MassChallenge will manage and operate the hub's programming.

Baker also plans to file legislation to expand the e-health institute's efforts to include development activities within the digital health care cluster.

The institute will lead the development of a program building connections between entrepreneurs and the health care system, and help startups partner with state agencies to access and use relevant data.

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said there will be issues to work out around the health care data, including steps to ensure patient privacy is maintained. The partnership will combine the government's regulatory authority and an array of collected information with the technology and entrepreneurship skills of businesses in the private sector, she said.

"We must move beyond collaboration and truly engage in improving access and the availability of data for regulators, academics, researchers and businesses to improve our public's health," she said.

The digital health initiative will also involve industry approaches to provide private funds to companies opening in, re-locating to or expanding in Massachusetts. Vertex Pharmaceuticals CEO Jeffrey Leiden, who led the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership's digital health initiative work, said more details on those funds should be available later this year.

MACP started having meetings two years ago to discuss a public-private digital health partnership, Leiden said.

Describing the initiative as "the first inning of a long game," Baker projected the digital health sector will see continued growth over a long period of time.

"This is not a space where sort of 50 percent of the work has already been done," he said. "I think of this as a space where maybe about 5 percent of the work has been done, and the future is very much going to be in front of us on this."


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