Health data geeks get their day

By Healthcare IT News
10:48 AM
Big health care data is the raw material for a whole new segment of the IT sector

By Eric Whitney

This story is part of a partnership between NPR and Kaiser Health News.

A computer programmer and a kid in a Batman suit walk into a pancake sounds like a joke, but it really happened, and now the programmer, Dave Vockell, has a new product to bring to market. It's an app to help seniors talk to their doctors about medical care.

"Like all great health care breakthroughs, it happened at the International House of Pancakes," he says, half-jokingly.

Dave Vockell, Lyfechannel, takes first place in the Code-a-Palooza Challenge at Health Datapalooza 2014. (Photo by David Hathcox/Health Data Consortium).

Venture capitalists are pouring more money than ever before into digital health start-ups, more than $2 billion so far this year alone, according to the venture capital firm Rock Health. They are betting that entrepreneurs can help doctors, hospitals and insurers become leaner – which the Affordable Care Act strongly encourages.

Vockell's endeavor started back in April, when Medicare released a huge database of how much it pays individual doctors. The government health plan for senior citizens and the disabled had kept that a secret for decades.

So when Medicare suddenly dumped an entire year's worth of data, finally making public millions of transactions, coders like Vockell tried to figure out how to make it useful for seniors.

Enter the I-Hop.

"My kids go there after school one day for funny face pancake lunch," he says. "There were lots of seniors there. And my kids run around, and the seniors love when they come up and sit with them, and I was like, I could totally use my kids to source a whole bunch of interviews pretty fast."

His three-year-old in a Batman suit proved a great ice breaker, and over a lot of pancakes, 43 seniors told Vockell that knowing which doctors charge more and less wouldn't necessarily send them shopping for the lowest price. Seniors generally like their doctors and don't want to shop for new ones.

Mostly the seniors told Vockell, "I know I have some procedures on the horizon, that I don't know exactly what they mean that I have to do or what they're going to cost me, I'd love to get some insight into that."

They also asked, "could you make the print really big?" Vockell says. And, he laughs, several mentioned, "the blueberry syrup is magnificent."

So Vockell developed a website that helps seniors understand the procedures their doctors are recommending, and the costs, so they can start conversations with their doctors - and they can print the information out on paper, in really big type.