If confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the new Secretary of Health and Human Services, Sylvia Mathews Burwell said she will promote greater data transparency as a critical component of healthcare transformation.
However, Burwell warned in a Senate hearing this morning on her nomination that data without context is not valuable for consumers or providers.
"I think information on markets is an important thing and the better off we are when we can get it to both individuals as well as the providers," she told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. "I believe this is an important part of both quality and costs and it's important for individuals, insurers and doctors."
Last month, Medicare publicly posted 2012 Part B payment information on more than 880,000 physicians and other billable professionals in all 50 states. According to HHS, the data makes possible analyses to compare 6,000 types of services and procedures along with payments received by individual providers. HHS also asserted that the information allows comparisons by physician, specialty, location, the types of medical service and procedures delivered, Medicare payment, and submitted charges. But the American Medical Association has argued that the data has significant shortcomings regarding the accuracy and value of services rendered by physicians.
"The information that was provided recently by HHS was important information," said Burwell. "I think it's also important as we think through this information to make sure it has context when we put out the information, making sure that individuals and others can use it in a way that it is given the appropriate context. Because the data without that can sometimes be something that doesn't provide the insights that one would hope it would."
To help consumers better understand the Medicare Part B data, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT has challenged software developers to make tools to assist consumers in taking advantage of the data. Because this data exists in raw forms that require interpretation and context, to make an impact on the average consumer it must be presented in ways that they can understand, according to an ONC notice. Among the capabilities ONC is seeking from developers are new interactive data visualization tools that can communicate complex data from multiple sources to support consumer decision making.
"The healthcare system has been plagued forever with a lack of transparency," said Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who shared her own frustrations with the problem of access to Medicare claims data. "Gathering data and disseminating and sharing data is incredibly key to helping physicians understand where they lie with regard to other physicians' practices, helping understand how hospitals go about pricing things and what their costs are, and helping patients make wise decisions about choosing providers."
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