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Feds looking to make health data more user-friendly to tech developers

More transparency could help spur innovation in health IT, one official said

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services wants health tech developers in Silicon Valley to make greater use of its data to help make advances in the field and aid entrepreneurs in the region.

The effort is part of a larger ongoing project within the federal government to make its health care data more open and intelligible to outside stakeholders such as businesses, tech developers and consumers.

"We're looking for underutilized assets within HHS, to bring more value to them," said Bryan Sivak, chief technology officer at HHS.

For example, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, an HHS agency, operates the National Plan and Provider Enumeration system, which basically lists all the doctors in the U.S. along with their specialties, but it has so much jargon that to the layperson it is practically useless, Sivak said.

"This is an important data set, which would be useful for building an application in health care," he said. "We need to get better at describing our assets and making them available" to developers, he said.

Sivak's remarks were delivered Monday during the keynote address of Health: Refactored, a conference held in Mountain View, California, for health tech companies and venture capitalists, sponsored by the trade group Health 2.0.

HHS is currently in the midst of a several-year project to make its data "open," which it defines as raw, publicly available data preferably based on an API (application programming interface), so outside developers can incorporate it into their own software or apps.

The goal correlates with an executive order signed just last week by President Obama to make government-held data in general more accessible to the public and to entrepreneurs.

In terms of health data specifically, "this is a new and big idea," Sivak said.

HHS intends to position its healthdata.gov site as a one-stop shop for all health data within the federal government, and to eventually expand it to other data sets. Currently the site includes data related to obesity and heart disease, hospital Medicare costs, and cancer and flu incidence rates.

Providing more transparent data to patients too is also a goal. One strategy involves a concept known as the "Blue Button," which is meant to be a highly visible, clickable link patients can use on websites offered by their doctors, insurers, pharmacies or other health services to easily view their personal medical records.

Several federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Medicare and TRICARE, already offer the tool on their websites. But if tech developers could leverage the federal data, and then find a way to incorporate something like the Blue Button into their product, "it could be the basis of a killer app," Sivak said.

Part of the HHS' plan is to move certain types of health data out of the bureaucratic silos where it currently resides and into patients' hands so they can take better control of their daily habits. The agency also wants to modernize its back-end systems so its data can be updated in real time.

There are tons of consumer products already on the market that provide individually generated data -- such as the FitBit activity tracker bracelet or apps that turn people's smartphones into heart rate monitors -- but few actually give the consumer good information on how to act on that data and make it useful, Sivak said.

HHS is about a month or so away from partnering with New York City-based Code Academy, to provide lessons and classes on how outside groups can use and build products around its data sets.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is [email protected]


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