The cancer doctor

Amy Abernathy, MD, Duke University and Flatiron
By Bernie Monegain
10:49 AM

Don't tell Amy Abernethy that something is impossible. The oncologist, researcher and associate professor at Duke University Schools of Medicine and Nursing, has made it her mission to go after the seemingly unsolvable. When it comes to cancer, she's convinced the answers reside in the data. It's just a matter of finding the right combination that will unlock the solutions.

"In the statistical world, we say that getting your data set right is 90 percent of the task, and everything else is now doing the analyses, which you've already planned out once you've gotten your data set right. And, this is getting the data set right at scale."

Abernethy, who spoke with Healthcare IT News from the New York City headquarters of Flatiron, a tech business that tags itself as an oncology cloud company. Abernethy had flown from Durham, N.C. to New York and reached the office before 9 on a Monday morning, proud to have arrived on time and with more ease than the week before. 

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Having wrapped up some of her projects – or put them on hold for a bit, Abernethy is on leave from Duke while she serves as chief medical officer for Flatiron. 

Flatiron had tapped Abernathy to help the company find the right chief medical officer. She was in the midst of interviewing someone for the job when the candidate asked her why she didn't take the position herself. It made her pause, Weeks later, Abernethy realized she wanted the job.

The potential at Flatiron was appealing. She returns to the data to explain.

"The issue is getting the data organized and structured in a way that you can truly use it for a series of problem-solving activities," she said. "It has been the bottleneck – in cancer, but in many other places. And, Flatiron was the opportunity to try and solve that problem with top-notch engineering talent, and with enough capital to actually do it – and do it at scale." 

"So, I sit in a number of places that have been trying to think about solving this problem in different ways, Abernethy said. "It's become incredibly clear to me that this is a problem that really needed a focused health information technology approach to solve it."

In the academic world, she explained, it is harder to get the kind of funding necessary to invest in engineering that is available in the commercial realm. 

"Even if I had the money, at least in my medical school (and probably others), the ability to attract and pay engineers – it's not a pay scale that medical schools understand or are used to," she said. "We pay physicians, but we don't pay engineers like that. So, I had a very hard time essentially recruiting talent in the academic side."

She admits that with the multiple roles she plays at Duke, "the idea of doing another job seemed to be a little bit ridiculous," but some of her projects were coming to a point where she figured she could step back for a while. A leave of absence from Duke seemed within the realm of possibilities, and though it was no a slam dunk, with the advice of the chancellor, she was able to put the needed details into place.

"What I realized was that there were so many things I was doing in my day job that was chipping on the edges of trying to solve this problem," Abernethy said.

All of a sudden, she realized that the candidate, who has asked her why Abernathy herself didn't take the Flatiron job, was on to something. "Rather than keep chipping on the edges," she said, "why not step right in the middle of the story."

And, that's where we leave her – for now.

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