Health care is constantly changing — from new technologies and methods used by doctors to legislation and policies that shift the entire landscape of medicine and health insurance. Within Highmark Health’s culture of innovation, new ideas are constantly being created, reviewed, discussed and implemented. With that in mind, this Links to the Future series will highlight some of the many fascinating articles and studies we come across, with a focus on the research, technologies and practices that will change and save lives in the near and distant future.


Links to the FutureDeep Brain Stimulation Ready to Be Tested in Helping Stroke Victims

What Happened? Based on 10 years of testing deep brain stimulation (DBS) in treating rats with strokes, doctors at the Cleveland Clinic announced that they are ready to test DBS as a means to help disabled human stroke victims. DBS has previously been used in humans to treat tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease.

Why Does It Matter? Nearly 400,000 Americans each year become disabled as a result of a stroke. While physical therapy and other treatments help many stroke victims regain some movement, doctors hope that DBS can further boost the effectiveness of physical rehabilitation.

What’s Next? The Cleveland Clinic doctors plan to attempt the DBS procedure once they identify an appropriate candidate who has exhausted other treatment options. Depending on how the first procedure goes, the hospital will look to enroll more people into an ongoing trial.

National Care Model Designed to Improve Cancer Care and Reduce Costs

What Happened? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) launched a new cancer care delivery program. Among other things, the patient-centered program ties payment to the quality of coordinated care during a course of treatment, rather than paying for services separately. Two hundred physician group practices and 17 health insurance companies nationwide will participate in the program, including Highmark and the Allegheny Health Network.

Why Does It Matter? In 2016, more than 1.6 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed — and approximately 600,000 people will die from cancer. Rising cancer treatment costs (projected to increase 27 percent between 2010 and 2020) are also a main driver in skyrocketing U.S. health care costs. The HHS Oncology Care Model puts a number of things in place to improve care and outcomes while controlling costs, including adherence to nationally-recognized clinical guidelines for patients undergoing chemotherapy, coordinating appointments with multiple providers to ensure timely treatment, and making sure that scans and other test results get to appropriate doctors before they meet with a patient.

What’s Next? The program officially launched July 1, 2016, and its performance will be assessed over the next five years. Wondering who’s participating in the program in your region? There’s a map for that.

Stem Cells Help Teeth to Regenerate Themselves

What Happened? A dream-come-true for everyone who’s suffered through or feared dental fillings and root canals: Researchers from the University of Nottingham and Harvard University developed a synthetic filling that helps regenerate damaged tooth tissue, eliminating the need for drilling and artificial fillings. The new filling stimulates existing stem cells to grow dentin, the bony material that makes up most of your tooth.

Dentist holding power drillWhy Does It Matter? Alleviating one of the main causes for “fear of the dentist” is pretty compelling. But, beyond “less drilling,” there is another benefit to replacing traditional dental fillings with the new biomaterial that helps the teeth heal themselves. Traditional fillings are made of material that is toxic to cells and unsuitable for pulp tissue inside the tooth; the new biomaterial in this process can be applied directly to the pulp tissue — which effectively regenerates the “filling” from its own natural tissue.

What’s Next? The bad news is that this treatment is not ready for dentist offices yet. But according to an article in Newsweek, the scientists are “hoping to develop the technique with industry partners in order to make it available for dental patients.” So brush and floss daily — and keep your fingers crossed.

Fly Eye Insight May Improve Retinal Implants

What Happened? Scientists at the University of Sheffield made a potentially game-changing discovery while studying the eyes of fruit flies (which, believe it or not, have similarities to human eyes). Their work suggests that cells in the retina previously believed to serve solely as light receptors actually help with visual processing tasks, too.

Why Does It Matter? Insights on the processing work of retinal cells could lead to improvements to artificial retinal implants. People with disorders such as macular degeneration rely on retinal implants to help restore lost vision. Today, these implants can only do so much, helping patients to see patterns and outlines. This new understanding of how our retinas work could be the key to getting the implants to function at a higher level.

What’s Next? The scientists involved in this study believe that their findings and the techniques used in their research lay the groundwork for future work to better understand human eyes and improve artificial retinas.

Lab Simulations Could Result in More Effective Flu Vaccines

What Happened? Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison developed laboratory simulations that they think may offer a better way to predict influenza virus mutations between flu seasons.

Why Does It Matter? Flu viruses mutate each season. One major challenge scientists face each season is predicting what strains of the virus will be most prevalent so that they can create a vaccine that is effective in preventing those specific strains. If their predictions are off, the vaccines that are developed and administered may have low rates of effectiveness, as we saw happen in 2014. Early testing shows that the new approach may allow scientists to accurately simulate in the lab setting what strains are most likely to develop in nature — months ahead of nature’s schedule.

What’s Next? The researchers in this study successfully created an environment to test and study flu mutation, and proved the promise of this approach. Other researchers will need to continue testing to determine whether or not this new strategy will be consistently effective.