Open data is changing health care, panel says

New systems and applications give patients more power, better care

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- Opening up data to developers and the public has taken heath care toward a “historic moment” that could fundamentally change how patients get care, Todd Park, CIO of the Health and Human Services Department, said today during a session at the Executive Leadership Conference.

An open approach allows for an evolving system of health care information that can take applications out of the hand of government in some cases, leading to a multipronged approach, he said. ELC, staged by the American Council for Technology and the Industry Advisory Council, is taking place this week in Williamsburg, Va.

Park gave examples of some projects HHS has created or contributed to that have improved patient awareness and care, such as the Community Health Data Inititative, HHS’s flagship Open Government Project, and Hospital Compare, which lets users see patient ratings of hospitals.

But it’s not always incumbent on government agencies to provide the applications if the data is available to developers.

Park cited Asthmapolis, an independent website created by a developer who attached a Global Positioning System device to an asthma inhaler and tracked the locations of attacks. A user could find out that a certain route to work prompted attacks, for instance, and find a new route to avoid an environmental trigger.  “And the coolest thing about this is that the government didn’t do crap,” he said. It merely made the data available and the developer did the rest.

The key is in finding ways to put data to work. “Data by itself isn’t useful,” he said. “Data applied is useful.”


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Among the next steps for HHS is HealthData.gov, a data and community “ubersite” that Park said is coming soon.

Roger Baker, assistant secretary for information and technology for the Veterans Affairs Department, said health IT has made a huge difference at the VA, to the point where the department can boast of better care than the average outside hospital.

“If you’re diabetic, pray that you’re a veteran,” he said. “If you have a heart problem, pray that you’re a veteran.” The department’s VistA electronic records systems, which he described as a learning systems that is getting better, has been key to improved care. And VistA will continue to evolve, he said. “Open source is coming.”

There are obstacles to opening up some data, particularly for applications that compare products or providers, said Kerry Weems, vice president and general manager for health solutions at Vangent. There are applications that will compare city hospitals’ performance with certain conditions, such as survival rates for pneumonia patients, but it is available only for three conditions, he said.

Doctors or pharmaceutical companies resist these types of applications because they don’t like being compared. Disclosure laws could help change that, but patients hold the real key, he said.

“The thing that’s going to change things is the consumer,” Weems said. “That’s when we know we’re there: when you have an informed consumer demanding information.”

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