'Data drunks' and 'dataholics' unite

Health Datapalooza brings colorful mix of data gurus
By Erin McCann
10:54 AM
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athenahealth CEO Jonathan Bush

The Fourth Annual Health Datapalooza stayed true to its name. It was, indeed, all about data — how to liberate data, the need to liberate data, structuring data, promising new data apps, and how data scientists just might have the sexiest career of the 21st century.

Big speeches were given. Big announcements were made. For one, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced the release of cost data for 30 outpatient procedures, a move that officials say aims to increase transparency and eventually lead to lower costs. "We've gone from what Todd Park would refer to as 'lazy data', which just sat in a file room somewhere into active data that is now informing the marketplace," Sebelius said.

[See also: Sebelius releases new HHS data.]

The electric and unapologetic Jonathan Bush, chief executive officer of athenahealth, offered his own perspective during a colorful keynote address to a packed audience.

In Bush's keynote June 3, he shuffled onto the stage with slumped shoulders and a somber expression. He willed himself to glance up at the audience and confessed, "I am a dataholic." Cheers and applause erupted throughout the crowd.

He thanked Sebelius for releasing the new data set, with a noticeable tinge of sarcasm in his voice. "Thank you, Secretary, for releasing 30 of 30 million things you need to release," he joked.

Bush acknowledged the progress the administration has made in terms of data, but also highlighted — animatedly so — the deficits of the administration, the healthcare system and current policies.

[See also: Slideshow: Health Datapalooza IV]

Big takeaway from his keynote? Hand over the paid claims data. Bush at one point directed his eyes toward ONC chief Farzad Mostashari, MD, and company. "Farzad, I love you, man. You're smarter than me. I love your bow ties. I love everything about you. I love what you've done," he said. "And I love Sebelius with the 30 procedures, awesome progress. There are like 30 million that we need. We need them every minute of every day."

And that's when Bush took his point home. "You must release CMS paid claims data to people who are covered under HIPAA...we're looking at 40 million patients every day. We look at their surgeries and their infections, and we can't look at the rest of their cost picture. We have plenty of information to embarrass them; we just don't have any information to save them any money." The audience, again, erupted in cheers.

Atul Gawande, MD, professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, offered a more reflective presentation, as he took the audience through what the health care system used to resemble and how innovations have helped bring the system to its present place. "There was a period in time where there was no analytics, no effort to look at the data, no effort to understand what was happening," Gawande said. 

Despite these innovations, progress and the power of big data, however, Gawande made sure to differentiate between technology and medicine, arguing the need to remember the human element to medicine, the act of caring and treating a sick individual.