Why Todd Park wants to set data free

By Bernie Monegain
08:43 AM
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Todd Park, chief technology officer of the United States, urged an audience at the Commonwealth Club of California recently to think about data in new ways, and suggested that to do so would first require setting that data free.

The value of data is something Park speaks about passionately. Open data and open innovation have the power to improve healthcare in America, he said, making his case before the Commonwealth Club audience on June 18 – where he also discussed who is the bigger geek, himself or President Obama. (Answer: the president.)

"There's no problem America has we can't invent our way out of, if we really try," said Park.

Recently, many PBS stations have reprised Park’s talk. It is available to watch at HealthcareITNews.com.

Here are three questions from the audience that Michael Blum, MD, posed to Park after the speech.

Q. Traditionally we’ve been expanding our EHR presence, but without the ability to really extract that data in meaningful ways. Do you see that changing from the vendors themselves exposing that, or do you see that coming from innovation on the outside?
Park: “I think it's probably a mix of both. Another area of tremendous innovation is where we’re seeing more and more companies come in to medical home networks or healthcare systems and say ‘you’ve got a bunch of different software applications. You’ve got lab systems, and your physician network uses seven different EHRs. We'll provide a layer that basically sucks data out of all of them, integrates them, concatenates them, runs them through taxonomy and creates a longitudinal patient record that is understandable to a patient and a doctor. Advances in data extraction and analytics transformation, even in the last three years, have advanced to the point to where that’s a very, very doable thing. It’s proven in early tests to be phenomenally valuable in lots of different ways.

“If a patient and a physician have a truly comprehensive understanding of what’s actually happening then better things tend to happen. Similarly we’re seeing EHR companies actually open up the data themselves, but I think it’s actually kind of a combination of the two that will where magic happens.”

Q. A lot of our information is unstructured. Talk about specific initiatives to make more structured health data, and what have you seen that’s been successful so far?
Park: “There is just a lot of work happening in this public-private collaboration led by the Office of the National Coordinator of Health IT to bring increased structure and robustness to clinical data in electronic health records so that it can be an ever better basis for everything from clinical decision support to population health analytics, etcetera.

“On top of that, there have been a great many advances in technology in general to take unstructured data and turn it into meaningful structured data. While you want to bring structure to certain elements of the record. There are other elements that you don’t want to bring too much structure to because you might actually lose valuable information as you structure it and clean it up. It’s important to both advance structure of the data, but also to actually keep certain elements in the way the doctor meant to say them and then apply technologies like natural language processing to be able to extract insight from that on an ongoing basis.

“One general truth about data is it gets more useful as it actually gets used. So, as the data in records ceases to be stuff that molders away in a manila folder, it actually becomes liquid and becomes accessible to the patient, and the patient’s family, and becomes accessible other doctor and other doctors, I think you’ll find the quality of the data improving significantly as it gets exercised as opposed to just moldering. I think it’s a very promising trend.”

Q. There’s already an increasing and overwhelming deluge of information. How are we going to avoid the deluge getting in the way of taking care of our patients?
Park: “I actually think we’ve got a deluge and a posse of information, and we shouldn’t confuse the two. One of the things we actually really want to do by for example by making data from the vaults of government available, like data on hospital quality, or community health or the latest, greatest knowledge about asthma is we want to unleash the ingenuity of innovators across the country to take that data and turn it into truly actionable information and insight and consumer friendly services and experiences, which we are seeing happen on a very, very broad scale.

“It’s really not the core competency of the government to build every single consumer friendly tool in the universe leveraging our data. What we can do is take the public good that is this data about say about hospital quality or nursing home quality and make it available to ingenious entrepreneurs across the country who can then apply their mojo, their experience, their expertise, their people, their technology, their capital, to develop fantastic customer experiences that make that data relevant.”