HIMSS12: Officials Stump for Open Data, Consumer Health Tools

by Kate Ackerman, iHealthBeat Managing Editor

LAS VEGAS -- Although most of the 36,526 attendees at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society conference on Thursday were focused on the release of the proposed rules for Stage 2 of the meaningful use incentive program, two big-name federal health officials -- U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and HHS Chief Technology Officer Todd Park -- focused on other aspects of health IT.

Park discussed how open data can help spur innovation to improve health and health care, while Benjamin talked about how technology can "bring health to where people are."

Opening Up Federal Health Data

Park said the federal government's Health Data Initiative is "an effort to turn HHS and sister agencies into the NOAA of health data."

Three decades ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began making weather data available for download in electronic form at no cost. Entrepreneurs and innovators leveraged that data for weather newscasts, websites, mobile applications, insurance, research and more.

Similarly, the government in the 1980s made Global Positioning System data openly available, driving widespread private-sector innovations.

Now, HHS is looking to open up health data to "spur massive innovation" in health and health care, as well as to create new jobs.

Park said, "At the end of the day, it's not our data, it's your data," adding, "It's not the organization's data, it's the customer's data."

The Health Data Initiative includes three core activities:

  • Publishing brand-new data for public/external access;
  • Making existing data more accessible; and
  • Energetically publicizing federal data to innovators.

According to Park, HHS is "liberating" a variety of health information, including:

  • Community health data;
  • Provider directories and quality data;
  • Blue Button data;
  • Data for accountable care organizations;
  • Consumer product information; and
  • Medical and scientific knowledge.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has tasked each HHS agency with sending an updated "data liberation plan," Park said. As a result, the amount of data available on HealthData.gov is expected to double in the next six months, he said.

Park acknowledged that many of the people and organizations that are best positioned to use federal health data to develop innovative products were not even aware such information existed. In an effort to publicize its data to innovators across the U.S., HHS has held:

Last year's Health Datapalooza, which was sponsored by HHS and the Institute of Medicine, showcased 50 innovations developed by companies to help consumers, care providers, employers and communities improve health and health care. Park said he was "overwhelmed by the response" and the quality of innovations.

He said, "All we did was take data that you already paid for" and make them accessible and usable. "American innovators did the rest."

Using Technology To Reach Patients 'Where They Are'

Noting that "health doesn't just occur in the doctor's office or the hospital," Benjamin told a group of reporters that information and technology tools can help patients reach their health goals.

The surgeon general launched a Healthy App Challenge to encourage innovators to develop mobile applications that can "get people more involved in being healthy." The winners, announced last week, include:

  • Lose it! In the category of fitness/physical activity;
  • GoodGuide and Fooducate in the category of nutrition/healthy eating; and
  • Healthy Habits in the category of integrative health.

Benjamin also detailed a program called "Fighting D in the D," in which personalized text messages are set up through the Text4Health program to help patients in the Detroit area manage their diabetes.

In another project, the surgeon general, HHS and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration have partnered with Facebook on suicide prevention. If someone sees a friend post a suicidal comment on Facebook, she or he can report the post by clicking a link next to the comment. Facebook then sends an email to the poster encouraging him or her to call a suicide hotline or chat online with a counselor, Benjamin explained.

She said that as of now there are no data to determine the program's success. But she added, "If it saves one life, then it was worth it, I think."

Benjamin recently started tweeting and a few weeks ago hosted her first Twitter chat with the American Heart Association, NIH and HHS. About 1,400 people participated in the one-hour chat on heart health, and Benjamin estimated the event made a total of 10 million impressions, after accounting for the reach of participants' followers. "We have to take our health messages to where people are," she said.

When asked what can be done to ensure that patients adopt and use health-related technology tools, Benjamin said, "We do have to make sure it's patient friendly." She added that developers should "make it easy" and start with simple apps. Once patients embrace those technologies, they likely will move on toward more complex tools like personal health records, she said.

Benjamin noted that "patients like things that make their lives easier." She said, "Our first challenge was to get the clinicians engaged. And, now it's time to get the patients engaged."

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