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HHS tech boss: Data will drive change in health care

HHS tech boss: Data will drive change in health care
by Shelley DuBois | Mar 26, 2014

by Shelley DuBois | The Tennessean

It’s a bold thing to say in a health care town – that some the best industry innovations come from people new to health care.

But Bryan Sivak, the chief technology officer at the Department of Health and Human Services, told a room full of executives at a Nashville Health Care Council meeting on Wednesday that an outside perspective is crucial for the industry. Specifically, for using health care data to drive change.

Sivak, who took his post at HHS in 2012, is also known as the organization’s “Entrepreneur in Residence.” He is charged with bringing an entrepreneurial mindset to a traditionally slow-moving, design-unfriendly organization – the United States government.

“How many times have you guys been on a government website and thought, ‘Wow, this really sucks?’” Sivak said. (Does ring a bell?)

Here’s where fresh eyes come in handy. Sivak used examples of start-ups Aidin and Purple Binder, both of which tap into data that’s already produced by the government. Those companies just make it easier for people to access that data.

Aidin provides a platform for information about long-term care facilities so that families looking into care for a loved one can choose it based on quality or type of care, instead of just proximity.

Purple Binder takes the social worker’s physical binder of provider services, and puts it into a user-friendly digital platform. Both companies were started by young entrepreneurs new to the health care field. Both of these are examples of streamlining data that the government already published.

That’s a major theme at HHS, Sivak said.

“We believe that we are living in a system where the data that exists is one of the main drivers of this change,” Sivak said.

Of course, he said, data alone is only as good as people’s ability to use it. “My goal is to help the leaders of the department of HHS to find people inside the agency and outside. We need to do this because we know that health and health care in this country is changing at a faster rate right now than at any time since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.”

HHS is actually hiring some new data savvy people. The department has positions open for a “Data Entrepreneur,” an “Innovator in Residence,” and “HHS Entrepreneurs.” Applications for the latter open in May.

Sivak himself will probably return to the private sector. “My background is a software entrepreneur. I’m kind of an accidental govie.”

His goal during his stint in government is to give health data to the people who can use it to make the industry better. He’s had some success so far, in 2013, HHS released data from the charge masters of various hospitals which led to industry watchers to compare the price of procedures between hospitals – many of which were drastically different from one another for no apparent reason.

Sivak has also helped launch, a website meant to make it easier to access health data from departments, including the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Recent reports on include one on FDA recalls and another on the 2009 hospital Medicare cost report.

The site also includes state data. Although, as Sivak said, pointing to a slide of participating states, “There’s a big question mark over Tennessee.”

Reach Shelley DuBois at 615-259-8241 and on Twitter @shelleydubois.

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