I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Sam Volchenboum. Dr Volchenboum is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Associate Chief Research Informatics Officer, Director, Center for Research Informatics, and Associate Director, Institute for Translational Medicine.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
Truthfully, I have a pretty unconventional path into medicine. I was drawn to computers and learned to program at a young age in the 80’s, where there wasn’t much else to do on a home computer. While I did end up choosing medicine instead of computer science, I couldn’t give up on that childhood interest. That’s why I wanted to find ways to use technology to enhance medical care and bring new data-driven approaches to the field.
Even though I got my MD and PhD in molecular biology from the Mayo Clinic, it wasn’t until I was doing my residency at Cincinnati Children’s Medical Center that I realized that treating children with cancer and researching neuroblastoma was where my real passion was. Doing my rotations in oncology and stem cell transplant, I saw that there was a gap I could fill with my programming background. That’s why even after a clinical fellowship at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Boston Children’s Hospital, I continued to see patients while participating in the hospital’s electronic medical record implementation.
You have no idea how many inefficiencies I observed in clinical care and medical research. I knew I had to push myself beyond the current system, and so I began developing new tools for collecting, processing, and managing data to augment care, improve safety, and enhance physician and patient satisfaction. Funnily enough, this was all before I had received any formal training in medical informatics.
Still, I knew using my self-taught skills would only get me so far, and I wanted to formalize my data science knowledge. I went on to earn a Master’s in Biomedical Informatics from MIT and complete a fellowship in clinical informatics at Boston Children’s Hospital. I’ve been a faculty member at the University of Chicago since 2007 and have been Associate Chief Research Information Office and Director of the Center for Research Informatics since 2012.
That work keeps me busy, but I still want to make sure I’m always a part of the push for the usage of data science in medicine inside and outside of academia. Litmus Health is my passion company and what I think of as the perfect culmination of all my interests and all the work I’ve done. Through it, I get to help drug development researchers make better go and no-go decisions from a patient’s environment, lifestyle, diet, and activity.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
That’s an interesting question — and one I’ve never been asked. At one point, we were asked to consider how we would use wearables to track movement and falls in patients with Parkinson’s disease. As you know, people with Parkinson’s are at significant risk for falls, so if there were a way to reliably track movement and falls in this population, it could be of great benefit. So what did Litmus do? We mobilized people in the office, put Fitbits on them, and started having them fall while collecting data. We were able to get some really interesting data from this work, and it has led to some really great research proposals.
I think what’s most interesting to me about this story, and why it stands out, is that there is an incredible metaphor in having people literally fall down on the job for the greater good. As an entrepreneur, you are often presented with moments where you can choose to go all in — physically, mentally, emotionally. The pay-off is almost always worth it.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I am biased, of course, but I think Litmus stands out for a number of reasons. First of all, our first deployment with the University of Chicago is not the first large scale clinical trial to use wearables in medical research, but it was the one of the first clinical trials to use wearables to conduct research on a disease, rather than testing the feasibility of the wearables and their behavioral impact on participants.
We are also one of the few, if not only companies tackling the healthcare data problem at the source — when data are collected. So much effort is focussed on machine learning for analytics, but the real innovation and contributions to clinical research are going to be centered on how we collect, standardize, and harmonize different kinds of data. That’s why we’re laser-focussed on using our machine learning chops to develop tools for better data collection and integration, facilitating easier interoperability and collaboration across the entire industry.
We’ve been overwhelmed by the interest we’ve seen from leading pharma companies to date; one of the keys to our success is that we don’t sell as a vendor, but rather as a peer, given our deep expertise and knowledge of the industry.
We have the unique advantage of having an interdisciplinary team with background in academia, the pharma industry, bioinformatics, software development, and sales and marketing. We have the know-how, the technical chops, and the agility to move quickly and efficiently through the regulatory environment, a claim that few companies of our size can make.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
One of the projects I’m most excited about is our work with the University of Chicago and Dr. Rubin, the Section Chief of Gastroenterology and truly a leader in his field. We have been working closely with him and his team to study quality-of-life indicators in patients with inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis). IBD affects over one million people in the US and is a challenging and often debilitating disease.
For patients with IBD, quality-of-life metrics such as sleep, pain, activity, diet, and bowel habits are critical indicators of their disease state and potentially predictive of flares. These data are traditionally obtained from patients through the use of paper-based surveys during in-person interviews in the clinic at relatively long intervals. The old method of doing things is subjective and slow. Their experience at the doctor’s office is cumbersome and inefficient.
In this trial, we are collecting activity and sleep data from Fitbits alongside responses to traditional validated survey instruments, collected through iOS and Android apps that we built.
We’re already seeing the positive impact for the patient in the experience of sharing their data and the ability of the clinicians to create a holistic, real-time view of the patient.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive in the tech space?
My advice is a little nuanced because I come from both the healthcare and the healthtech world. Broadly, I think my biggest advice is to challenge the industry status quo as often as possible. This can be a difficult ledge to walk, since compliance with regulatory guidelines and laws is absolutely critical. But it is also easy to get bogged down in the traditional way of collecting and using data. But just because something has been done in a certain way for 20 years (e.g., assessing sleep via a questionnaire), this does not mean there cannot be a validated new way to do this (e.g., collecting sleep data from a Fitbit).
Much of my time as an entrepreneur is not only understanding healthcare’s pain points (which I am especially privy to as an MD myself), but also working with them to identify ways in which technology can integrate into an existing system and impact positive change, without breaking what’s already there and working.
It’s definitely a fine needle to thread, and it takes having players from regulation, pharma, researchers, patient care and more all collaborating to truly make it work.
There’s a message in here of, “we’re all in this together.” Healthcare and even other major industries like education or agriculture don’t need a knight on a white horse to swoop in and save the day. Rather, they need somebody who will listen, collaborate, and tackle today’s challenges alongside them.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
I’ve had many champions over the years. And while it’s tempting to, of course, give thanks to my incredibly-supportive family, I know they would have been helping in whatever path I chose. As I think back over my years of training and education, one particular mentor stands out. From the first day we met in 2000, the program director at Boston Children’s Hospital, Dr. Sam Lux, told me that it was his mission to figure out how I would connect my interest in technology to medicine. Over the years, he continued to be a tireless advocate for me, helping me at every turn to help me achieve my goals. I’m incredibly thankful for him and his insights and guidance.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’ve been so lucky to take care of children with cancer. Of course, the relationship is not only with the child but with the entire family, and this has been the most rewarding part of my practice. Over the past decade, I’ve turned my attention to trying to bring tools and technology to the research community to help facilitate more discoveries in pediatric cancer. In the past few years, my group at University of Chicago has been working on building and launching data commons to collect and make available data for clinical trials. We’re very excited about these initiatives, and we are hoping to expand our work across other disease areas and across the world.
Can you share the top ways that technology is changing the experience of going to the doctor.
I’ve already seen the difference wearables can make for clinical trial participants in their visits, and I know that their impact can extend to the average doctor’s office visit. For example, in a clinical trial setting, we often ask participants to give us information about their sleep habits from the past month — in the same way that a doctor might ask how you’ve been feeling and then enter in your information to the computer. In either case, the answers you give aren’t going to be very accurate. Our memories are faulty, and we may be giving biased data without meaning to. After all, who can truly remember every night of sleep they’ve had over the past month?
However, once you introduce wearables into the doctor’s visit or clinical trial setting, you’re virtually guaranteed to get more accurate results. This is better for both doctors and patients, and while it definitely improves your care behind the scenes, it also makes a huge difference to the patient’s experience. With wearables, the clinical trial participants I’ve worked with have been astounded by the fact that now they get to understand their data and track their health.
The excitement that people feel over Fitbits today is being translated into the clinical trial and doctor’s setting. I’ve seen it, and I think it’s fantastic that we’re bringing that transparency back into how people understand their health.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
During my work with Litmus, I often find myself reflecting on a quote from J. R. R. Tolkien, “Short cuts make long delays.” When I think about how technology has tried to insert itself into healthcare, this seems like such sage advice. Too many companies have gone into the healthcare space wanting to disrupt but not wanting to really devote themselves to the work. When I see start-ups wanting to fix all the problems of the industry within the span of a year or with a one-stop product, I wish they know the extra delays they’re actually creating. In my work, I try to value the path that forces me to be comprehensive, even if it takes a little longer.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂
Well — and hear me out because this isn’t just the computer geek in me — but I would love to meet and talk with Bill Gates. Among the many things we agree on, we both see that there is an incredible opportunity to use technology to have global impact, especially in regards to healthcare.
The Gates Foundation has already made great strides in this regard and has used technology successfully to improve food systems and address health barriers. However, of course, I would want to turn Bill’s attention to a health equity issue that I view as especially important. Even if it doesn’t sound especially exciting, the issue of access to electronic health record systems is a pressing problem in most of the world. After all, it’s difficult to help someone in a long term and comprehensive way if you don’t know their health history. And patient self-reporting can only get doctors so far in these developing nations.
In addition to the incredible benefit this would bring to people all over the world, implementing and democratizing electronic health record systems would also provide a platform for collecting data that could be studied. I know Bill Gates already has a passion for data, but I’d love to convince him of its particular importance here. Think about it: Most of the data on patients worldwide is lost forever — not even collected. If we could collect, store, and leverage even a small portion of those data, imagine the potential impact it could have on learning about how to diagnose and treat disease. I think if he could hear my pitch over a nice meal, he’d be convinced, and the Gates Foundation would have a new project on its hands.
Originally published at medium.com