M.D./M.B.A. Students Win Business Plan Competition

Four of the Miller School’s M.D./M.B.A. students, in partnership with an M.B.A. student from the School of Business Administration, won the Grand Prize and a check for $10,000 in the Graduate Student Category of the University of Miami’s 2014 Business Plan Competition. Their company, Valens L.L.C., is developing software that will use big data-type analytics to help hospitals lower readmission rates for patients with congestive heart failure.

The four students — Mathew Varghese, Sabrina Taldone, Cristina Del Toro and Joshua Cameron — are all in the class of 2015. They are completing the M.B.A. portion of their studies and are about to return for the fourth year of the M.D. program.

“The term ‘big data’ has a negative connotation for many people, but there is a lot you can do with it from a healthcare perspective to improve efficiencies and outcomes,” said Varghese. “We came up with the basic concept as a group, and the competition gave us a platform for developing it.”

The basic concept is software that will identify patient- and hospital-specific risk factors and use a clinical algorithm to stratify patients according to their risk of being readmitted — thereby identifying avoidable readmissions. To simplify their efforts, however, the team members realized that they needed to focus initially on a single disease.

“We interviewed several hospital executives because we wanted to identify and hone in on one specific, actionable opportunity,” said Del Toro. “We wanted to go after the biggest fish.”

One of the executives they spoke to was Rafael Campo, M.D., Chief Medical Officer at University of Miami Hospital. He helped them identify the “big fish” — congestive heart failure (CHF), the most frequent cause of hospitalizations among adults over 65, with more than one million admissions each year. In addition, there are 240,000 CHF readmissions each year that occur within 30 days of the original admission, costing Medicare more than $17 billion.

Like all hospital administrators, Campo wrestles with the costs of CHF — human and financial — every day. It’s not easy trying to help patients with a chronic disease while simultaneously trying to keep costs under control.

“Right now, we’re using a shotgun approach,” Campo said. “The Alliance for Aging brought several hospitals in Miami-Dade County together in a clinical care transition program. Trainers come in to teach patients about their conditions and how to avoid readmissions. If patients are willing, there are also home visits. It has been very successful for us and reduced readmission of heart failure patients by 60 percent.”

That’s the good part. The bad part, says Campo, is that the program is paid for with federal funds that will eventually run out. In addition, because hospitals are trying to educate every patient, they aren’t determining which ones are at highest risk for readmission.

This is where the student team steps in. A predictive algorithm that could identify the high-risk patients and reduce readmission costs, but not be dependent on government funding, would be a win-win for patients and hospitals.

“We have been helping the students by providing them with data — average number of patients, cost of average admission, cost of average readmission and other statistical information,” said Campo. “They are playing what I hope will be a very nice role for us, because the program we have in place can’t last forever. Being able to identify the high-risk patients is also more efficient.”

UMH has agreed to work with the students as the beta site for the software. The algorithm is still in the earliest development stage — the students won the prize for their originality and analysis in their business plan, not a finished product — and much work lies ahead.

Once the beta version is proven, the basic framework can be adopted by other hospitals using their own data. And once that begins to happen, Valens can consider developing similar solutions for other diseases with high volumes of admission rates, such as pneumonia.

The students have learned to tap their resources for outside expertise when needed. Cameron, for example, took five years off after college to work in cognitive science before entering medical school. “I have worked extensively with computer scientists and have many friends in the field,” he said. “We had some assistance from them while writing our business plan, and I plan on reaching out to them again.”

The business-only partner, Joseph Petri, is an M.B.A. student and entrepreneur who owns a medical billing company and several clinics and laboratories. His role has been to help the rest turn a good idea into an actual business.

“Converting the initial ideas into quantifiable objectives transformed what began as a student project into a real-life project,” he said. “Valens has a lot of potential, and we are all committed to it. Hopefully we will take the idea to market.”

Taldone, the fourth M.D./M.B.A. student, brought experience as a venture consultant at The Launch Pad on the Coral Gables campus to the mix. That experience also helped the group bring more real-world focus to their business plan. Taldone noted that assignments in their M.B.A. courses allowed them, when applicable, to gain credit for working on Valens. “Our papers didn’t just end up on the professor’s desk,” she said. “They continued to have life through our business plan.

“It’s a powerful example of interdisciplinary learning,” she said, “but what we all share is an interest in improving patient outcomes. After all, that’s why we’re becoming doctors.”

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