As the Chief Physician Executive of WellSpan Health, Dr. Anthony Aquilina sees meaningful benefits of getting genetic insights into the hands of the providers. WellSpan Health and Helix recently announced a new partnership to create a comprehensive population-scale genetic screening program for Pennsylvanians. We sat down to chat with Dr. Aquilina about the value he sees in this program and why WellSpan Health is doubling down on precision care.
Q: Dr. Aquilina, thanks for joining us, can you tell me a little bit about Wellspan Health and your role there?
Tony Aquilina: I’m a primary care physician by training and joined WellSpan around two and a half years ago as Executive Vice President and Chief Physician Executive. WellSpan Health is a mid-size community-based health system based in south-central Pennsylvania. We sit in a market surrounded by some big names in academic health like UPMC, John Hopkins and Penn Medicine.
Q: Can you tell us more about WellSpan’s decision to investigate and ultimately undertake a population genomics program. What problem is it solving for WellSpan & how does it align to your strategic goals?
TA:When I joined WellSpan, precision medicine wasn’t in the top 5 things I was thinking about, but it became abundantly clear that in order to deliver top-quality care we need to be investing in genomics, and more specifically population-scale genomics. Primarily, we want to do this because it’s the right thing to do for the patients and communities we serve. We want to be able to provide more personalized and preventative care to our patients, and engaging our patients in genomics at scale is critical to us being able to do that. But we also see an opportunity in being able to differentiate ourselves from the systems that surround us, to attract both new patients and top provider talent. WellSpan is striving to be both a healthcare provider of choice to patients, but also an employer of choice to providers and staff, we see a population genomics program as being a key driver of that.
Q: Following on from that, health systems are being stretched in many different directions right now, meaning that it’s more critical than ever to be really focused on opportunities that drive return on investment. How did you think about the return on investment for a program like this for WellSpan?
TA: We expect to see a real return in the quality of care we’re able to provide patients, moving the conversation from treatment to prevention. On the financial side, WellSpan has about 275,000 managed care lives, so about a third of our business is very focused on total cost of care. By being able to better uncover and manage risk in these patients by understanding their genetic predispositions, we believe we will bring down that total cost. We’re also really excited about the opportunities in pharmacogenomics to impact patient adverse events, time to treatment onset and even readmissions. As a health system that is on the journey to value based care, we’re currently paying for a lot of genomic testing, but it’s not optimized or organized in a way that is going to be most impactful for patients and physicians. A population genomic screening program allows us to address that and shorten the time it takes to get this information into a physician’s hands.
Q: I know you have a really strong group of providers who are pushing for ways to incorporate genomics into clinical care. Can you share a little more on how you think about this program contributing to your physician engagement strategy?
TA: We actually had already started developing a precision medicine program when we started talking to the Helix team. There was a big push by cardiology teams to look at what we could do, and they brought it to me and said “we really need to move on precision medicine.” So our physicians really pushed us hard because this is something that they want for their patients and they want to be able to utilize. Recruiting really good physicians is hard, and so we see this as an opportunity to recruit and retain top talent and again compete with the academic medical centers in the area. We’re also excited about the opportunity to democratize research and give providers across our organization the opportunity to answer clinico-genomic questions as they arise. We need to make sure we have the capability to use data effectively, I really want physicians to be able to leverage the data and use it effectively.
Q: Last question from us, do you have any advice you have for other health systems that are trying to decide whether or not this type of program is right for them?
TA: I think for population-scale genetic screening programs like this it is actually not “if” it’s “when”. There are going to be some health systems that will want to do it by themselves, but we found that when we tried to do it by ourselves we weren’t as impactful as we could be, when we found a patient it was great, but we felt like we were missing a lot of people. What we’re really excited about working with Helix is being able to bring precision care to a much broader audience. I would encourage health system leaders to think about the size of impact they want to have.
To learn more about how WellSpan Health and Helix are working together to advance precision care at the population-scale, read the full announcement here.