The journalist in me knows to resist stereotypes at every turn. Every time you think you have a clearly defined pigeonhole, something—or someone—pops up to spoil the neatly concocted world view. When it comes to government employees, this little typecasting switch in me too often goes off, and I immediately think the worst—perhaps it comes from reading too many densely written missives from CMS. Thanks goodness I encountered Todd Park.

Park, the chief technology officer at the Department of Health and Human Services, spoke recently in Chicago on an industry panel that addressed IT’s role in promoting community health. He turns every untoward stereotype about government—and government employees—on its head. “This is not your grandfather’s HHS,” Park said. He exuberantly laid out his vision for a reinvigorated department that is all but synonymous with impenetrable regulations. He described a newly defined government role in facilitating IT innovation, one that can come by unleashing all the dormant creativity in the industry, “a thousand flowers blooming,” he said.

Health IT is an arena he knows well—Park was the co-founder of EHR vendor Athenahealth, an EHR vendor where he served until taking on the government job in August 2009.  And after nearly two years, he shows no signs of transforming into the dreaded “bureaucrat” descriptor that anti-government types love to trot anytime a public program is involved.

Under Park, HHS has begun to open its vast trove of data—appropriately de-identified he emphasized—for programmers and software developers to use in the design of new applications to serve the industry. On June 9, the agency in conjunction with the Institute of Medicine will convene its second Health Data Initiative Forum in Bethesda, Maryland to showcase many of the applications, which are pouring in from around the industry in support of community health. Some 50 will be showcased at the event.

But for all his exuberance, Park is not naïve. “Publishing data is only five percent of the effort,” he said. “Marketing is 95 percent.” Meaning it will take quite a bit effort to get physicians—and consumers—to actually use the tools that are hitting the marketplace in spades. The key, he said, lies in making consumer-oriented applications fun. He cited the example of FarmVille, a social networking game on FaceBook with tens of millions of users. Create the equivalent for health care, Park said, and you can move people toward healthier behaviors.

The urgency of this task is clear. Panelist after panelist at the Chicago event detailed the major public health crisis that awaits us unless we change course. The looming catastrophe is reflected in the burgeoning waistlines of Americans and our correspondingly large health care bills. “If we don’t get the prevention piece right, all of our EHR connectivity will just help us document our failures,” said Paul Handel, chief medical officer at Health Care Service Corporation, which runs BlueCross plans in multiple states.

In my next blog, I will tackle the issue of consumer responsibility in health care and what role IT should play in upholding it. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your ideas for an application that could alter consumer behavior and steer people to healthier lifestyles.


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