Frontiers Conference at the University of Pittsburgh

University of Pittsburgh researchers play a leading role in a White House conference, co-hosted by Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, on the future of innovation.

Patients First in the New Frontiers of Medicine

In the summer of 1977, Freda C. Lewis-Hall’s mother died of a stroke.

Dr. Lewis-Hall was in her first year studies at the Howard University School of Medicine and was more deeply awaken to the fact that when it comes to caring for patients, individual patients need to be at the center of that care.

Dr. Lewis-Hall knew of the Framingham Heart Study from the 1950s, which provided general and what is now common knowledge on the “risk factors” or the dangerous effects of smoking, hypertension and high cholesterol as they relate to heart disease.

But, the question that always stayed with Dr. Lewis-Hall was not what her mother had in common with the all other patients, but was “it that made her different?”

Did the doctors know enough about her personal background and environment to know if they needed to treat her differently?

Today, Dr. Lewis-Hall is an executive vice president, and chief medical officer with Pfizer, a biopharmaceutical company. She is outspoken and passionate in her efforts to ensure safe, effective, and appropriate use of the company’s therapies to improve health outcomes by engaging with those involved in patient care, especially patients themselves.

At the White House Frontiers Conference, she was a panelist with “Building Science Capacity for the Future of Health,” held in the University of Pittsburgh’s Alumni Hall.

The discussion was part of the track on personal innovation, which closely examines health care and precision medicine that puts the patient first.

For Dr. Lewis-Hall, America’s health care systems are at the threshold of that frontier. To move across it, she says, health care providers and others must move forward in how they address patient diversity. “We’re not all the same,” she says, “so what is about my mom that was unique, and how should we treat her and not the 5,000 others.  We’re not looking for the average, rather we’re looking for information that is needed to make the greatest possible outcome on individual patients.”

“What I’m enthusiastic about” says Dr. Lewis-Hall, “is how we move from the general into the personal. The starting point is realizing the patient is in the center and that our scientific work goes from there.”

When it comes to patient care, there often a lot of smart people in the room.

But the challenge, she says, “is how to use Star Wars medicine in a Flintstones system.” The first goal for the future is connecting to the patient. “We have to be smart enough to ask patients, ‘what can I do to take care of you?’ ”

Sure, there are ways to build greater connectedness through data aggregation and sharing, which can amplify the science, but we need to rely on patients to get their individual data.

“For me,” she says,” the next frontier is finding ways to involve patients as completely as possible.”

Check back throughout the week for more on the White House Frontiers Conference. 

—Ervin Dyer