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Big data surge from federal agencies will drive health IT

Kenneth Corbin | June 4, 2013
Department of Health and Human Services unleashes new structured data sets as it encourages the developer community to build new health IT applications to improve patient care.

Marshaling technology to reshape the nation's healthcare system might be generously described as a gradual process, but top officials at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on Monday spoke exuberantly about the transformative impact that will arise from the release of new stores of medical data.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius offered brief remarks to kick off the Health Datapalooza conference, an event focused on bringing transparency to the medical industry, where she took the occasion to announce that the department is making available a host of new data about hospital pricing, Medicare spending and other aspects of healthcare.

HHS is encouraging researchers and developers to leverage that data to build new applications and technologies that could lower costs and improve patient care.

"That's a critical part of this story," Sebelius says. "We're a great believer that unlocking our data, turning it over to those of you who know how to formulate that data for policy makers and providers, is the best possible thing to do, and we're going to continue to do that."

Federal Government Unlocks Data for Developers
In broad strokes, HHS's efforts to release new data sets mesh with the priority that the Obama administration has set for the entire federal government, recently articulated in an executive order calling on departments and agencies to begin producing data in an open, machine-readable format that developers could tap into to unlock the value from the reams of information the government oversees.

"One of the things we're doing to fuel more private sector innovation and discovery is to make vast amounts of America's data open and easy to access for the first time in history. And talented entrepreneurs are doing some pretty amazing things with it," Obama said in a statement.

Sebelius describes the process at HHS as converting "lazy data" into "active data" that can tell a fuller story that could help achieve a higher quality of patient care.

A major thrust of the health IT movement involves the digitization of medical records, an effort to create a holistic picture of a patient's medical history that would be accessible to the various providers that patient visits.

Included in the data released on Monday was a new set information about the adoption of electronic health record (EHR) systems among some 146,000 doctors, sorted by state, specialty and a statement of progress those doctors have made in meeting the certification requirements set by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, one example of the type of open data policies at HHS that Sebelius hopes will help the department "leapfrog over years and decades of inaction."

"We're at a very exciting juncture in the health system. The adoption of electronic medical records is transforming care delivery and payment delivery," she says.


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