Under the hood of healthcare innovation: Gajen Sunthara and leveraging EHRs

Gajen Sunthara
(Photo: Greg Weintraub)

What does it take to be an innovator changing our healthcare system for the better? This two-part series profiles two digital health innovators at Boston Children’s Hospital who were named among MedTech Boston’s 40 Under 40 Healthcare Innovators for 2017.

Gajen Sunthara, MSc, has two innovation passions: healthcare policy and electronic health records (EHRs). With professional experiences spanning technology, business and government, he finds himself in a position to effect change in a way that few others can.

“Gajen’s passion for healthcare is evident from the moment that you meet him,” says Farhanah Sheets, a software engineer at Boston Children’s Innovation and Digital Health Accelerator (IDHA) who reports to Sunthara. “No matter how big or small the idea, he brings a level of excitement to each project that is contagious.”

As director of Innovation R&D for IDHA, Sunthara is leading significant efforts around EHR interoperability — the ability of healthcare information systems to exchange and use each other’s data. He’s also focused on creating applications that can easily be integrated into any EHR system.

The White House years

Gajen Sunthara with President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama joins the United Stages Digital Service (USDS) staff for photos outside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building of the White House, Jan. 12, 2017.  (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

Sunthara got his start in healthcare innovation with a BSc in Computer Science from Wentworth Institute of Technology, and a MSc in Information Technology from Harvard. At Boston Children’s Hospital, where he has worked for 17 years, he began in the Department of Laboratory Medicine, then moved to technology-focused work in the Information Services Department (ISD).

From September 2014 to January 2017, Sunthara worked in the White House, exposing him to healthcare policy across the U.S. Departments of Defense, Veteran Affairs and Health and Human Services (HHS).  As White House Presidential Innovation Fellow, he worked with the HHS to improve EHR interoperability standards. Later, as a Health Technologist with the United States Digital Service at the White House, he helped tech-architect President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative.

“An interoperable apps platform for electronic health records system is the foundation for better health improvements overall,” says Sunthara. “As patients navigate through multiple health systems, their health records will need to be exchanged to have proper care. As federal government payment reform shifts to value-based healthcare, we need good data so we can learn from populations.”

Inspiring EHR innovation: SMART on FHIR

At Boston Children’s, Sunthara is leveraging two technical standards to develop EHR-compatible applications. One is FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources), an open standard for exchanging healthcare information electronically that is being adopted by many vendors. The other is the SMART (Substitutable Medical Applications, Reusable Technologies) protocol created by Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s.

Through “SMART on FHIR,” Sunthara aims to build scalable interoperable solutions with significant impact. In his vision, clinicians around the world could use these solutions to more effectively manage patients over time, across different health systems, from the clinic to the home setting.

His team’s portfolio of projects includes:

  • BP Centiles, a tool that calculates systolic and diastolic blood pressure percentiles, normalized by age, sex and height
  • Dose Range Checking, a collaborative FHIR effort between Boston Children’s Hospital and Cerner, providing clinical decision support to improve medication dosing calculations
  • Pediatric Growth Chart, an app tracking child growth over time, providing a dashboard with reference data sets from the WHO, the CDC and others
  • Trivox Health, a chronic disease monitoring and management platform with real-time analysis and tracking of patients’ symptoms and responses to therapy over time.

Applying innovation, at the hospital and beyond

Gajen Sunthara named one of MedTech Boston's 40 Under 40 Healthcare Innovators for 2017Sunthara’s R&D team at IDHA works broadly across the Boston Children’s ecosystem, bringing together leading stakeholders from the clinical and commercial sides of pediatric healthcare to shape the future of interoperability and pediatric healthcare.

This collaborative approach has had a significant positive impact. Clinicians, researchers and administrators can think about their ideal technology of the future — knowing that Gajen’s team can create that future — and engage in creative, clinically-minded thinking.

But Sunthara’s digital health work goes beyond the hospital’s walls. He co-founded Boston-based 1upHealth, a patient, provider and payer platform for improving health through intelligent analysis of data collected from consumer sensors and in the hospital.

He also serves as an advisor to such healthcare technology ventures as InciteHealth, at the Center for Primary Care at Harvard Medical School, and Sherbit, a Silicon Valley–based healthcare IT company optimizing the quality and efficiency of patient-based data.

Part two of our series profiles Jared Hawkins and the “digital phenotype.”