Datapalooza: A Concept, A Conference And A Movement : Shots - Health News Entrepreneurs, investors and data geeks descended on Washington, D.C., in pursuit of better ways to make health information useful for consumers. They urged bureaucrats to set the health data free.

Datapalooza: A Concept, A Conference And A Movement

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

Now, a story about government data-gathering that is not a secret. More than 100 million Americans get their health care through government programs, and that generates a lot of information about costs and quality.

Technology experts say health care would be revolutionized if all that data could liberated from spreadsheets and databases and turned into something consumers can use.

This week, the Obama administration try to jumpstart that effort at an annual event in Washington, D.C. called Health Datapalooza. And Colorado Public Radio's Eric Whitney flew into town to check it out.

ERIC WHITNEY, BYLINE: If you're having trouble picturing a Health Datapalooza, think 2,000-plus data geeks, entrepreneurs, health industry bigwigs and bureaucrats stuffed into hotel conference rooms with lots of coffee and PowerPoints. Not feeling the excitement? That's OK. Jonathan Bush is.

JONATHAN BUSH: Data scientist may be the sexiest career in the 21st century.

WHITNEY: Bush is the CEO of AthenaHealth, a rapidly growing health data company. He says that forces are aligning in a way that make data and the ability to use it for decision making the most important commodities in health care. That's in large part because the Affordable Care Act rewards providers who can prove that there are more efficient, higher quality or cost less than competitors.

BUSH: The data's there, the technology's there, the entrepreneurs are there. They are watching the cost of health care go up. And they are seeing how people feel about the product, despite its cost, and they're saying, something's going to pop. So that is exciting. There is, in fact, this pregnant moment.

WHITNEY: New companies are already being born, like the one 28-year-old Mike Galbo started in January after his grandmother had a bad experience in a rehabilitation hospital, where caregivers messed up her medications.

MIKE GALBO: And as a result she was hallucinating for a week. She was overmedicated. And it was a really traumatic experience for my grandfather and my family.

WHITNEY: Galbo, who's a professional data analyst, recognized that his grandmother's problem boiled down to a lack of good information when it was time to choose where she should go for care.

GALBO: She was given a list of facilities in her area, with only phone numbers and addresses to help her choose. And unfortunately, she didn't make the best choice.

WHITNEY: Galbo was frustrated. He could use the phone in his pocket to look up reviews of almost any other kind of business and how much they cost, but virtually no reliable information on hospitals. So despite having no previous experience in health care business, Galbo and a friend launched Aidin, a company that combines government data on health facility quality with recent patient reviews and puts it at people's fingertips on a computer.

Four hospital systems will start using it this summer. It's exactly the kind of outsider innovation that the federal government's chief technology officer for health, Bryan Sivak, wants to see more of.

BRYAN SIVAK: If you look at the world of subject matter experts in health care who can do something interesting with data to transform the system, that's, you know, a pretty small circle. But if you look at the, you know, circle of people out there that can do interesting things with data full stop, that's a much, much larger circle, and so that's really who we want to talk to.

WHITNEY: But leaders in the health data field say that if Sivak really wants to draw in more creative entrepreneurs, his agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, needs to make more of its data on health care prices and quality publicly available.

Well, we're tying.

He says getting a big federal agency to part with data that it's always held close isn't always easy.

SIVAK: It's funny, in some cases, you know, it takes one conversation and you're done. In some cases, it's hand-to-hand combat. And that's actually one of our big jobs, is to kind of find those pockets of resistance and really go after the datasets that we think are most important.

WHITNEY: In May, the government released data on how much hospitals across the country charge for a hundred of the most common health care procedures. And at Datapalooza this week, it released information on 30 more. Industry's reaction was, thanks, but it's only small fraction of what we want and need. For NPR News, I'm Eric Whitney.

CORNISH: This piece comes to us from a collaboration between NPR, Colorado Public Radio and Kaiser Health News.

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