It’s rare to hear someone refer to a conference presentation from a government bureaucrat as “a treat.” But, that is just how numerous observers have described a recent speech by Todd Park, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ “Entrepreneur in Residence” and chief technology officer.
Park, who spoke recently to a crowd of 350 or so health care players and Owen Graduate School of Management students at a Nashville Health Care Council event, is leading an HHS initiative to unlock a treasure trove of data and make it available to the public in the hope that collective intelligence can prove more effective than conventional government fixes.
“I appreciated the chance to meet up with the Nashville health care community,” Park said later. “There is a lot of energy and creativity exhibited by entrepreneurs and leaders across the community, and I look forward to see how they’ll work with open HHS data to help improve health care.”
Among the data sets his department has compiled and disseminated are Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services hospital-by-hospital quality performance statistics, summaries of Medicare expenditures on physician services, a downloadable data set that lists all NIH-funded research grants, contracts and intramural projects from 2005-09 and a regularly updated data set representing all technologies available for licensing from the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration. Additionally, the department has a feature known as “Blue Button,” which allows consumers access to their own health data, a concept that should not seem as radical as it, in fact, is.
The idea is that with more freely accessible information, the entrepreneurially minded will dig into the raw data and find a meaningful and, hopefully for them, profitable way to utilize that data to improve the state and delivery of health care in the U.S.
To this end, Park’s department has sponsored various events challenging teams of programmers and developers to create products as part of a contest. From these events, numerous companies that are taking innovative looks at the health care system have been spawned.
Park comes by his entrepreneurial mindset naturally. He is a co-founder of cloud-based practice management and electronic medical record software provider athenahealth. He was recruited by the government and joined HHS as its chief technology officer in 2009.
So, how can Nashville firms take advantage of this data to maintain the city’s position as a health care mecca? Park said local industry leaders’ “ability to take ideas and scale them” will be a key.
“It’s a rare combination, and one that will play a key role in the transformation of the health care system,” said Park, adding he plans to return to Nashville soon.
Actually, a handful of area companies already are on board with Park’s efforts.
“Where he is driving to is so exciting for those of us using the data,” said Tod Fetherling, former Nashville Technology Council head and entrepreneur. His latest venture, Stratasan, is a software-as-a-service health care analytics company that markets applications that “layer health care incident rates with demographic, socioeconomic, behavioral and geographic data.”
“It is one of the most exciting times ever ahead of us in health data,” Fetherling said. And he and others are hungry for more. Fetherling told The City Paper that he hopes HHS can eventually speed up the release of data so that his company’s analytics can be even more up to date and useful.
Fetherling expressed surprise that this was Park’s first visit to Nashville, noting, “There are more people using their data here than anywhere.”
Now that Nashville has gotten a taste of Park (and vice versa) and seen the opportunity the data presents, it’s likely that the city will be seeing more of him, and he of the city.
Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), who attended the conference, noted that in the past, it would have been hard to generate popular appeal by scheduling a government bureaucrat to be a featured speaker at such an event. Park’s dynamic and energetic presentation, however, has likely changed that.
“Jaws were dropping at the conference,” Cooper said. It’s likely, he said, that it changed many people’s view of government.
“Government can work for you rather than against you,” Cooper added, pointing to Park’s initiative. “In some ways, the government is ahead of the private sector.” Insurers, he said, could have released much of this data for decades.
Until now, Cooper said, the “Blue Button” feature mentioned above was not considered. It’s odd, he noted, that access to one’s own health data would not be commonplace. Even now, it still seems strangely innovative though it likely shouldn’t.
Health care has been one of the last sectors to embrace computers and digitization. Park’s athenahealth co-founder Jonathan Bush, who also presented as part of the conference, addressed that fact during an equally dynamic presentation at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center the evening before Park spoke. Doctors, Bush pointed out, are one of the last groups of professionals that heavily rely on paper faxes as a major aspect of doing business.
In the digital age, physicians are only now beginning to move to more electronic means of relaying information and tracking data, rather than, as they historically have, relying on ink and paper.
“In the past, the sector has been so fat and happy with government payors, it hasn’t had to be as efficient,” Cooper said.
That has changed in recent years as talk of reform has continued to ramp up. And the hope of government is that Todd Park and HHS’ approach will help accelerate the improvement process.
Like a mantra, Park stressed in his presentation: “Recognize that most of the smart people in the world don’t work for you.”
Some of the best ideas Park said he has seen have come from longtime government employees who have finally been encouraged to think creatively. And by turning the data loose to the collective intelligence of the country’s thinkers, more progress can be made.
Opening up that creativity is a talent, and one from which the government will almost certainly benefit, Cooper said.
“I hope we can keep Todd Park in government,” he said. “I hope he is contagious.”
Cooper added that he hopes some young Nashville entrepreneurs will follow Park’s example – serving in the government to “help clean it up.”
Government service may not have been on the minds of the MBA students in the crowd at Park’s speech, but it’s easy to imagine that some may have begun conceptualizing companies to utilize the HHS data and improve some aspect of health care. For now, that’s a good start.