Q&A with Mark Zhang, DO, MMSc
May 8th, 2020
Mark Zhang, DO, MMSc is an attending physician and Medical Director of Digital Health Implementation and the Digital Innovation Hub at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and an Instructor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Tell us about your background.
I grew up in Erie in Western Pennsylvania and completed my undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh before returning to Erie for medical school at LECOM. I then went to Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh for my internal medicine residency and chief year. I came to Boston to do a palliative care fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital and Dana-Farber and stayed on to do a clinical informatics fellowship at Partners.
Why did you decide to work in palliative care?
When I started residency in internal medicine, I didn’t know what palliative care was. The palliative care program was just beginning at Allegheny General and, like many things, timing was everything. During my first year, I initially had thought I was going to do pulmonary critical care and it was during one of my ICU shifts that we consulted this new palliative care service. I remember the clinician coming in, reading the chart, going into the room and closing the curtain. An hour later he came out and the family was hugging him. I thought to myself, “What am I doing? That’s the work I want to do,” and that really started my journey. As I learned more about palliative care, it resonated with me. The reason I got into medicine was having true connections with people and the humanity of the specialty really affected me. I’m very pleased to continue to work in the field.
Tell us about your area of expertise. What drew you to this?
My interest is in the intersection between health care and technology, particularly in entrepreneurship, innovation and mobile applications. I’ve always been interested in technology in general, but more specifically I’m interested in how it can work in health care.
Again, I think timing was important. When I was a fourth-year medical student, the first iPhone came out. I remember seeing one of the residents bring it out and thinking that’s going to change how we practice medicine. When I was an intern the next year, it was the first year that Apple released an App Store. I knew one of the first things I wanted to do was create an app for the medicine residency. I didn’t have a technical background, but I reached out to different universities in Pittsburgh and found one that was willing to partner with me. I learned a lot building out my first app, a reference application that listed every resident, attending, and their contact information, and kept building new applications during my residency.
Ever since that first application, I’ve focused on building mobile applications for health care, including Fast Facts, the Pinkbook website for Dana-Farber, and, most recently, PalliCOVID.app, which was created using the Brigham Reference platform that we have built over the last few years.
In addition, I help Brigham and Partners with their overarching innovational and digital health strategy. As part of my role as the Medical Director of the Digital Innovation Hub at Brigham and Women’s, I support many different innovators and clinicians in taking their ideas to the next level. Currently, we’re supporting the use of robots and telerobotics, E Ink signs to display patient and visitor information, and a native map application for Brigham and Women’s Hospital that will pinpoint your location and provide step-by-step directions to your destination.
From a palliative care standpoint, my focus is acute symptom management, and my clinical area of expertise is focused on inpatient palliative care. I spend my clinical time on the consult service and the inpatient Palliative Care service.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
My favorite part of my job is that, working with different teams and environments, no day is the same. Whether it’s being on service and doing fulfilling clinical work helping people navigate symptom management and difficult conversations, or working with brilliant innovators making applications and digital tools, it’s all incredibly interesting and exciting.
Are there any recent publications or projects that you’d like to highlight?
We have a model at the iHub, which is to “use every part of the buffalo.” We don’t build one-off tools if we can help it and try to use our existing ecosystem of tools and find ways to leverage them to do new things. One of the tools we’ve been building for the last couple years is the Brigham Reference Application Platform (BRAP), an in-house building solution to create reference applications like Fast Facts or UpToDate, which might previously be custom made.
Our most recent project, PalliCOVID.app, is a palliative care specific COVID-19 resource that was made using BRAP. It’s also built as a progressive web application, meaning it will run as a website, but you can also install it as discrete app on your phone or desktop. Progressive web applications are a relatively new concept and it’s only now being used in health care. It’s exciting to be on the forefront of it and pushing the technology forward.
Another project we’re working on is COVID Pass, which is an employee-facing web application for self-testing for COVID-19 symptoms. The idea is that any Partners employee, before coming into a hospital setting, goes to covidpass.partners.org and answers a one question questionnaire about COVID-19 symptoms. If they report no symptoms, they are cleared for work and receive their COVID Pass for the day that provides access to the building. If they report symptoms, the app will inform them that they are not cleared for work, provide instructions on next steps and send information to Occupational Health for follow-up. This has been live since mid-March at Partners and we’re seeing about 25,000+ logs per day and have screened over 1000 employees that have attested that they have symptoms and were transitioned to Occupational Health for further evaluation. We built this over the span of about a week and it’s been incredibly exciting to see it get adopted and scale so quickly. We recently submitted a manuscript about COVID Pass that is pending peer review, though we have a pre-print available on Med Archive.