HHS Turns to Technology to Help Improve the Nation’s Health

REDMOND, Wash. — Oct. 6, 2010 — The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is the principal agency for protecting the health of all Americans. With 18 staff divisions and 11 operating divisions, the agency represents almost a quarter of all federal outlays and administers hundreds of programs ranging from local-level services to Medicare, the nation’s largest health insurer. Todd Park recently joined the agency as chief technology officer, a new position created to harness the power of data and technology in innovative ways. Microsoft News Center spoke with Park about how technology can be used to address the challenges facing healthcare today.

Microsoft News Center: Our healthcare system is faced with significant challenges. Where do you think technology can have the biggest impact?

Todd Park: I think technology can be a critical aid to the transformation that needs to happen and is happening across the healthcare system. Technology by itself is never the answer, but it can help. At the most fundamental level healthcare and health improvement is a very information-intensive endeavor: a consumer choosing a provider, a community trying to figure out what public health investments to make, an employer trying to manage the wellness of its population, a provider trying to decide how best to care for her patients. At each level, it’s very important to have the right information at the right time to make decisions that could literally be the difference between life and death.

Technology and data have a critical role to play informing the decision-makers and the system — consumers, patients, providers, employers, government officials — and helping them make the right decisions at the right time, to maximize health and well-being.

Microsoft News Center: The federal government is driving campaigns in support of open health data such as the Community Health Data Initiative and the Blue Button Initiative. Can you tell us more about this?

October 05, 2010
Todd Park, chief technology officer for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Todd Park: I think the broad campaign of open health data as embodied by the Community Health Data Initiative, and the Blue Button Initiative, is one that is still early but that we’re incredibly excited about in terms of the velocity and momentum of the response.

We teed up the idea of the Community Health Data Initiative in March. The fundamental idea is to position HHS as the NOAA of health data, NOAA being the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is the federal agency that supplies weather data to the world. But NOAA doesn’t have to build Weather.com or run The Weather Channel or build weather apps. That’s done by people outside the government.

And so we asked if there a similar play that we can execute. The federal government spends billions of dollars a year compiling health data on smoking rates, obesity rates, access to healthy food, hospital readmissions, hospital quality. Can we take that data and publish it like NOAA does, in a way that’s easy to find, easy to access, that’s machine readable, that’s free of any intellectual property constraint, and then have innovators outside the government take that data and turn it into incredibly cool applications and services and products?

We proceeded to publish a bunch of data, and publicize the data. A growing system of innovators is taking that data and turning it into incredible new products, new services, new applications, and new features of existing products and services.

The early response to our Blue Button Initiative is similarly very, very encouraging. Blue Button is about taking Medicare and Veterans Affairs (VA) data — which is data about you — and enabling you to get a copy of it. Today Medicare and the VA are two of the largest repositories of personal health data in the world. You can go to MyMedicare.gov, and My Health, which are personal portals, get an account and see your own data. But what you haven’t been able to do was actually download a copy of your own data.

The Blue Button is a feature where there’s literally a blue button that we’re installing on these portals to enable you to download a copy of your own data, so you can then upload it wherever you want, print it out, take it to your doctor, etc. We think that this very small, very basic step is one that really helps free up the liquidity of personal health data, and can help engender an ecosystem of applications and services that use that data to help you improve your health.

Microsoft News Center: What’s your biggest hope for what the beneficiaries will do with their health information now that they have access through the Blue Button Initiative?

Todd Park: Our biggest hope is that they’ll actually use the Blue Button to download the data. Next we hope that this will help facilitate the emergence of applications and services that ingest the data in ways that are useful to patients — that then do jobs for patients that are useful in helping them improve their health.

But I think it really starts with consumers taking the data into their own hands and demanding that something be done with it that’s helpful. And I think private sector innovators will rise to that challenge; there’s already evidence that they are doing so.

Microsoft News Center: The Health 2.0 community is actively involved in driving awareness and support of these initiatives. What are you seeing out of this group, which is meeting in San Francisco this week?

Todd Park: Health 2.0, led by Matthew Holt and Indu Subaiya, has put out a site, Health2challenge.org, where anybody can post a challenge, and anyone can answer a challenge to build applications that help improve health. There are challenges that, for example, ask for applications that help kids engage with health data, help make communities more aware of their health performance, or help encourage fiscal activity.

We, as HHS, just sponsored a challenge on applications that take our hospital comparison and nursing home comparison and other provider quality information and turn it into Web and mobile apps. That’s extremely exciting. There’s also a challenge issued by the Markle Foundation where developers can take the sample files we created for Blue Button and build applications that generate substantial benefit for Medicare beneficiaries and veterans. We’re excited to see the outcome of that challenge as well.

Microsoft News Center: These initiatives are creating a surge in private-public partnerships; do you see this as part of the catalyst for change?

Todd Park: I think that it’s going to be a very helpful contributor to the improvement of the healthcare system. For health to improve, people at every level of every sector need to make the best decisions they possibly can, which they’re absolutely incented and motivated to do. Consumers are incented to make decisions that produce the best outcomes for them, right? Mayors want to make decisions that make their community the best off. But what’s been missing is really good information that can help inform those decisions, delivered in a timely way. I think initiatives such as the Community Health Data Initiative and Blue Button, and open health data in general, can be helpful in addressing that need, and in making a significant contribution to the improvement of health in the country.

What’s really exciting is that it’s not driven by any one specific organization or any one specific set of people; it’s a very decentralized, very entrepreneurial, very grassroots effort, where everyone is doing what they do best. The federal government has this data, and it’s putting it out there, but the federal government just doesn’t have the capability to build all the applications itself. There are a lot of other people who are incredibly well-equipped to do that and are doing that, which is fantastic. And you have communities, consumers, providers and employers who are then taking those apps and using them to make better decisions. So it’s truly a public-private ecosystem that cuts across sectors with a common purpose and a common mission of improving the health of the country.

Microsoft News Center: What is the next big thing you want to tackle in healthcare?

Todd Park: The foremost thing is to keep following through on what we started. We’re off to a very exciting start with respect to open health data, but there’s a lot of work still to do. I’m excited about the HealthCare.gov website, and the data that we’re collecting for it, and there’s a lot of great work left to do there. As health reform implementation continues, as the implementation of the Affordable Care Act continues, there is obviously an enormous amount of work to do.

But I just can’t imagine a better time to be in healthcare than right now. There’s so much opportunity for innovation and improvement. There are so many people excited about doing the innovating from across the country. It’s a fantastic time to be doing this kind of work. And if we stay focused on executing on these things and the innovation agenda in general, I think that’s the right place to be.

Related Posts