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Industry Exclusive Interview: Todd Park, HHS's CTO

October 5, 2011
by Mark Hagland
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Federal healthcare IT leader shares his perspectives on ACOs, innovation and information diffusion

On Wednesday, Oct. 5, Todd Park, chief technology officer of the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) helped open the Merge Live 2011 Client Conference, a user-group conference sponsored by the Chicago-based Merge Healthcare, and taking place this week at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers in downtown Chicago. Park’s rousing speech laying out a vision for how HHS can help to create a climate of, and opportunities for, healthcare IT innovation industry-wide, was energetic, yet specific, and led his audience of about 500 healthcare IT leaders to give him a standing ovation. Stating more than once that “This is not your father’s HHS!” Park articulated for his audience a three-pronged overall strategy coming out of HHS for leveraging information technology and the Web to improve patient care quality and efficiency and make the healthcare system more accountable, transparent, and responsive to healthcare consumers’ needs.

Todd Park

“There are three big things” HHS is moving forward on, Park said, and all three are elements in what he referred to as “information liberacion.” Among the three, he said, is “patient-centric information exchange, as with the Blue Button program,” a web-based program through which healthcare consumers will increasingly be able to download their health information and share it with providers and other trusted parties. The second element of three, he said, is provider-to-provider health data exchange, as embodied in the federal Direct Project. And the third element of “information liberacion” is increasing market transparency, with the aim of helping healthcare consumers to make better decisions.

Park spent over a half-hour outlining and explaining to his audience a variety of initiatives being developed and launched at HHS that he believes will help to transform healthcare, through an ongoing collaboration between government and the private sector. In particular, Park said that he and his colleagues at HHS want HHS, via the new-ish, to become “the NOAA of health data,” referring to the fact that the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has become not only a comprehensive data repository of weather-related data and information, but also a foundation for private-sector use of weather data, such as by The Weather Channel and

Underscoring his and his colleagues’ vision of a federal government role not to control data diffusion but instead as a facilitator of innovation and collaboration, Park referred to a maxim articulated years ago by Bill Joy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, which has become known as “Joy’s Law.” “Bill Joy,” he said, “used to say that, you have to remember that no matter where in the world you are, most of the smart people in the world work for someone else. I think of that; and that’s what we’re trying to achieve at HHS.”

Park commended the announcement Wednesday by Merge Healthcare that the company was launching a new cloud-based imaging service, called “Merge Honeycomb,” which will enable users to upload, download, view, and share medical images, free of cost. That announcement, Merge Healthcare’s CEO Jeff Surges, said in a statement, was aimed at demonstrating that “[W]e’re harnessing the cloud in a way that encourages and enables faster collaboration among all healthcare stakeholders, resulting in a true improvement in the delivery of care and reduction of costs.”

Industry-Exclusive Interview with Todd Park

Just prior to giving his keynote speech at the Merge user group event, HHS CTO Todd Park sat down exclusively with HCI’s Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland, to discuss his perspectives on current healthcare reform- and meaningful use-related developments. Below are excerpts from that interview.

Do you feel the data reporting requirements coming out of the three mandatory healthcare reform-triggered programs [value-based purchasing, hospital readmissions reduction, and healthcare-acquired conditions], as well as the two voluntary ones [accountable care organizations, bundled payments], and the meaningful use program, are being harmonized well?

There’s a bunch of work going on with that; and that harmonization among them is absolutely a goal. And as [National Coordinator for Health Information Technology] Farzad Mostashari has said, the point of meaningful use stages 2 and 3 is to support care delivery innovation and payment reform. So a lot of work is being done; there’s still a ways to go, of course.

Provider reaction to some of the risk elements for ACOs has been a fairly strong pushing back against the preliminary rule for the ACO shared-savings program. Can you comment on the feedback to the preliminary rule from providers?

We’re in the process of putting the final rule together; it’ll come out soon. But we’ve gotten a ton of feedback; and what I can say is that the folks at CMS [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] and HHS are paying very close attention to that feedback.

Were you surprised by the intensity of the provider feedback?

I personally haven’t been closely involved in that whole process, so I don’t know that I had any specific expectations one way or the other. But of course, the whole point of putting out a draft rule is to receive feedback. So folks are paying really close attention. It’s a great thing that we got a lot of input, because the input is being very carefully considered, and it will make the final rule into a better product.

Are significant changes going to be made?

I’m actually not allowed to say, because of the rules around rulemaking.

One element in all this that has become increasingly clear is the degree to which clinical informaticists will need to be key figures in creating change in their organizations, in order to create the kinds of clinical and data transformation that are being called for by the healthcare reform and meaningful use mandates. What are your thoughts on the challenges and opportunities facing clinical informaticists at this point in time?

I think it’s a tremendous time for clinical informaticists, because they’re now key people to make things happen. And I know that virtually all clinical informaticists know this already, but I think that it’s not so much important to know everything, but rather to be the catalyst to get clinicians, IT people, administrators, patients, everyone, talking to each other, to maximize health in a very proactive, information-driven way. So if we view the role of the clinical informaticist as the person who has to personally do all the work, of course, it becomes impossible; but instead, we should view them as leaders and coordinators, performing [strategic] jujitsu to help achieve all the right things; then it becomes a very exciting role.

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