HHS, FDA Expand Access to Open Health Data

The Obama administration has released new datasets on adverse drug events and Medicare pricing. This offers researchers and developers alike a chance to build novel applications and identify cost trends, all in the name of improving efficiency and providing better healthcare while lowering costs.

WASHINGTON — The Department of Health and Human Services launched a series of new open data initiatives today, aiming to expand access for researchers and developers to troves of information about drugs and hospital pricing.

Under one program, the Food and Drug Administration is opening access to millions of reports on adverse events involving drugs and medication errors that the agency has collected since 2004.

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U.S. CTO Todd Park announced openFDA here at the fifth annual Health Datapalooza conference, an event focused on the technical and policy issues surrounding the use of technology to improve health care and lower costs.

In a keynote address, Park billed the new program as "an ambitious new public access platform focused on offering high-value FDA public datasets," which will be made available through a searchable API.

"One will no longer have to rely upon difficult to parse quarterly reports or [Freedom of Information Act] requests to get this information — and this is only the beginning for openFDA," Park said, noting that the agency plans to push out datasets on product recalls and labels this summer.

Additionally, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is offering up a suite of data about hospital charges, giving researchers and developers the ability to take a comparative look at the billing practices of Medicare providers around the country.

The data includes billing information associated with the 100 most common inpatient procedures culled from more than 3,000 hospitals in the each of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., over two years, offering a look at how costs have been trending in that time.

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More broadly, the efforts carry forward the twin Obama administration priorities: Bringing more government data online in open, searchable and machine-readable formats and advancing the use of technology in healthcare.

In both areas, the administration envisions a crop of innovative new technology companies emerging that will be built on top of government data, a "movement" that HHS CTO Bryan Sivak said is well underway. "We've seen more health care startups emerge in the last five years than we've seen in the previous 20."

Park cited an industry report that pegged the investment in digital health companies at nearly $2 billion in 2013, more than double the level of 2011.

On the Road to Liberating HHS Data Sets

At the same time, Sivak acknowledged that the administration's health IT efforts — openFDA and the CMS data being the latest — remain in their early stages. "We have a ways to go before we reach our goal of liberating every single data set Health and Human Services can get its hands on."

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On the other side of the data coin, HHS has been pushing to give patients more access to their own medical files, an effort facilitated by the digitization of medical records.

Park cited a fourfold increase in the proportion of hospitals that have begun using at least a basic form of electronic health record (EHR) system since 2009, swelling from one in eight to around half in that time.

"The vaults and stacks of paper records are being phased out," Park declared.

Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.

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