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Todd Park Pitches Open Health Data at New York Event

BY Nick Judd | Monday, August 15 2011


Watch live streaming video from health20nyc at livestream.com

Todd Park, the federal Health and Human Services entrepreneur-in-residence and an energetic pitchman for open health data, promoted business use of government data Friday at an event at Pfizer's 42nd Street offices.

"In a very real, very concrete, very nontheoretical way," Park told a crowd of about 60 people on Friday, "this is the best time in American history to be at the intersection of health, innovation and technology."

Park's premise is that changes the Affordable Care Act makes to the way Medicare pays providers — moving away from fees for services rendered and towards incentives for keeping patients healthy — creates an as-yet-untapped market for businesses that make smart use of data to help people make smarter decisions. He's been beating this drum for a while, but now, with many troves of HHS data released and more on the way, there are concrete examples that lend support to his lofty idea. Several folks, most notably Simon Owens for the Atlantic, have described this mission. HHS is the steward for datasets ranging from National Institutes of Health to the USDA to Medicare.

One of the data sets Park was in New York to publicize was a set on Medicare claims, showing how much the federal program for seniors had paid per procedure. That data answered questions for Jeanne Pinder, a former New York Times journalist who took a buyout in 2009 and since then has been working to start a business based on open data with the help of foundation funding.

"I found some data that Todd had liberated, and made this fascinating thing using among other things the consumer engagement motivation that Todd speaks so movingly about," Pinder told the crowd Friday. "This is what we call the Price Map. We used some medicare data on pricing to makes this little interactive thing that points to the disparities in pricing in the health care marketplace."

Price Map is more a proof of concept than a solid business model, but it parses a complete dataset to show, for example, that Medicare pays $31,748 on average for a certain type of coronary bypass surgery at New York's Lenox Hill Hospital but only $4,835 for the same procedure at Beth Israel Medical Center.

There are more mature examples of a business powered by health data, as well. At a June forum on HHS' open data initiative, the Health Data Initiative Forum, Park helped to judge a whole battery of applications supported by open data in what he described as an American Idol-like contest. (He was Paula Abdul, he said.)

Park's appearance at Pfizer, co-sponsored by New York's Health 2.0 Meetup and Hacks/Hackers, is especially noteworthy as cities and states across the country look to follow the federal government's example. It's an accepted premise now across the U.S. that one point of interaction between government and their software-developing constituents should be at a data trove where government releases its data sets — but it's unclear, in many cases, using that data can become the core of a viable business.

This all goes to Park's evangelism, selling a vision of American health care in which companies support a new business model by using government data — not just on costs, but USDA information on access to healthy food, Environmental Protection Agency data on pollution, data on clinical pharmaceutical trials and more. It takes up a sizeable portion of his time.

"When we launched the health data initiative, we thought it that would be 50 percent publish data, and 50 percent market the data to innovators, that would be the breakout of the work," Park told me after the event. "And we were completely wrong. Two percent of the effort was actually publish the data; 98 percent is marketing the data and connecting it to innovators."

Park estimates he spends a full 30 percent of his time traveling the country to speak at events like the one held Friday, or competitions at colleges and universities to see who can make cleverest use of government data.

"I think one of the most productive segments has been entrepreneurs and companies that are already working in some capacity to try to improve health care," Park said. "Educating them about the data ... and having them take the data and fusing it to their service and platform, that's been very high-return for us."

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