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“IT isn’t just a background service—we’re partners in innovation.” – Banu Santebennur, Director of Clinical and Research Systems and Strategy

Enabling COVID-19 convalescent plasma donation

Milwaukee – July 14, 2021

Versiti’s information technology team quickly shifted gears to make technology more accessible in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.


In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, teams across Versiti—from researchers to phlebotomists—shifted their focus to learn more about the virus and do their part to help local patients. COVID-19 convalescent plasma (CCP), or plasma donated by individuals who successfully recovered from the virus, was found to be an effective treatment for patients hospitalized with severe cases, as the antibodies in donated plasma helped their immune systems beat the virus.

IT partnership expedites the COVID-19 convalescent plasma program

Versiti Blood Center of Wisconsin collected its first CCP donation in April 2020, and an emergency use authorization (EUA) from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) followed in August 2020. But in order to get Versiti’s CCP program off the ground, teams across the organization—including information technology—needed to shift gears quickly. Director of Clinical and Research Systems and Strategy Banu Santebennur said that the IT team had to mobilize all groups within the department to deeply engage with business as processes shifted to collect, test and distribute CCP.

Typically, an IT project of this magnitude takes weeks or even months. “We had our team working within days to get this out. Normally, even if you prioritized this type of project, it would take several weeks,” she said. “It was all hands on deck; this was our priority.” Jim Frank, director of blood and recruitment systems, and his team worked tirelessly to configure blood establishment computer systems (BECS) across four states to be able to handle CCP as a new product and report on daily inventory levels as hospitals scrambled to obtain CCP in the early days of the pandemic. Other IT team members came up with strategies to ensure staff could continue to work remotely and that blood drives and donations could continue uninterrupted.

As the challenges of collection across multiple states during the pandemic became more apparent, Santebennur and a cross-functional team discussed CCP from a technological perspective and found that the most efficient route was to treat it as a research project, something her team has experience with.

“We had the systems in place on the research side to handle the kind of complexity of CCP. Being EUA approved, it was a lot like a research project,” she said. “So, what was cumbersome became more efficient as we went through the process.”

Versiti is no longer accepting CCP donations, as the advent of the COVID-19 vaccine has nearly eliminated the need for it. This means Santebennur’s team can take on new projects in support of other teams across the organization.

Supporting the data behind lifesaving discovery and innovation

In addition to their flexibility in the wake of COVID-19, Santebennur’s team provides support to Versiti Blood Research Institute (BRI). Currently, her team aids the Recipient Epidemiology and Donor Evaluation Study REDS-IV-Pediatric, a multicenter research program launched by the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI). This program evaluates and improves the safety and availability of the blood supply and the efficacy of transfusions.

“IT has been involved in every phase of REDS,” Santebennur said. “This involves gathering all of the data related to anybody who has had a transfusion at participating hospitals, especially children.” Data including donation information and health history is aggregated, analyzed and sent to the NIH, where it is added to a national database that researchers can reference to aid in their study of better treatments and cures for diseases. “It’s complex, because there are differences in how hospitals collect data,” she said. “Everything has to be rationalized, combined, recoded and made more meaningful to researchers. All this experience helps us be a better partner to our researchers in today’s data science-driven discovery approaches.”

Automating sophisticated diagnostic testing in support of clinical trials

Santebennur’s team also supports Versiti Diagnostic Labs (DL), which conducts sophisticated diagnostic testing for patients around the world. When physicians order panels of tests, certain processes and protocols must be followed in order to provide accurate results. “There are complex decisions that have to be made as the tests come in,” Santebennur said. “Our team works to automate a lot of that; we create the technology framework that allows DL to send out test results.”

Versiti DL also works closely with pharmaceutical companies that need extra help to conduct clinical trials. DL receives and processes samples for these trials, and IT helps ensure seamless communication and data transfer back to the pharmaceutical company. “We work closely with the labs to manage requests for new technology, ensure they have what they need, and make sure it fits into what Versiti can do from a technological perspective,” Santebennur said. “Our goal is to securely automate as much as we can and simplify processes.”

Ensuring patients have the lifesaving blood they need

In addition to their support for the BRI and DL, Versiti’s IT team has created innovative products that streamline care for patients who need blood transfusions. Some patients require blood products with types more specific than the standard A, B, AB and O; for example, patients with sickle cell disease often need blood with the Ro antigen, which is uncommon but invaluable for their health. Versiti’s antigen query product is a web-based tool used by hospitals to scan units of blood to view their genetic makeup and determine if they have specific antigens, like Ro, that may benefit patients.

Recently, Versiti also created a web-based service derived from its antigen query tool that enables caregivers to find specially typed units at other locations. Though Versiti initially created the service for its own use, Blood Centers of America (BCA) saw its full potential and is in the process of rolling it out to blood centers nationwide. “This expands the concept of knowing what typed units are available at different participating BCA blood centers,” Santebennur said. “They upload their inventory on a daily basis and each blood center can go in and search for units they need and don’t have in their own inventory.”

This is particularly important for patients who receive frequent blood transfusions and may be sensitive to certain antigens in blood. Sourcing blood products for these patients can be difficult, but this tool makes it easier for physicians to find the blood products that will keep their patients healthy. “It opens up access to blood for severely compromised patients who are sensitive to certain antigens,” Santebennur said.

At Versiti, we are passionate about improving the lives of patients and helping our healthcare partners thrive. Every day, we expand the frontiers of patient health through the integration of science, medicine and service. Santebennur is excited to see how the Versiti IT team will play their part in blood health innovation. “Our world these days is driven by technology,” she said. “IT is not just a background service—we’re partners in innovation,” she said.

About the expert: Banu Santebennur is the director of clinical and research systems and strategy at Versiti.

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