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Can Todd Park Revolutionize the Health Care Industry?

His title is chief technology officer, but at HHS, Park is the entrepreneur-in-residence, inspiring others to make government data accessible

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Todd Park genuinely intended to retire.

At the age of 24, he'd co-founded what would become a thriving health care technology company called Athenahealth, and nearly 10 years later he made a fortune when the company went public with a market capitalization exceeding $1 billion. His wife Amy, who he'd met when he was at Harvard, had long wanted a husband who wasn't glued to his career seven days a week, and the couple had been putting off having a child. The two moved from Boston to California in 2008 and Amy gave birth to a son that same year. Though Park was, in theory, retired at this point, he continued to invest and work with health care technology startups. But with these new companies he had a more hands-off approach, meaning he wasn't heavily involved in their day-to-day activities. At 36, it looked as if he'd put much of his entrepreneurial work behind him and would spend the rest of his days as a family man and passive investor.

"There's a burgeoning thread of activity happening that says maybe the way to educate people on health is not to tell them to eat their spinach."

The first sign that this scenario wouldn't play out came when, in June of 2009, he received an email from Bill Corr, the deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. "It said, 'We'd like to talk to you about becoming chief technology officer of HHS,'" Park told me during an interview in his HHS office last month. "I always wanted to meet Bill, and so if he asks to meet with you, you don't say no. But I thought I'd learn more about what he was looking for and help him find the right person, because basically if we moved back from California to the east coast, and I jumped from the life I was living into the 24/7 startup life again, my wife would behead me. She had been waiting a long time to have a husband and have a dad for our kid."

But Corr was what Park described as a "cordial and lethal sales person," and at his office, he began to lay out the framework of this brand new position opening at HHS. First and foremost, Corr explained, this position wouldn't be heading the IT of all of HHS; the agency already had people for that task. Instead, the CTO position would focus entirely on being an "entrepreneur in residence." Earlier that year, President Obama, on his first day in office, had signed the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, which would usher in "a new era of open and accountable government meant to bridge the gap between the American people and their government." The idea was to force government agencies to engage in radical transparency, a move that would include opening up its vast treasure troves of data and funneling it through APIs so that private citizens and businesses could build apps and tools that could leverage the data.

The potential benefits of such open government initiatives are immense. In my interviews with Park, he repeatedly brought up the example of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In the 1970s, NOAA began releasing its daily weather data to the public, and today that data is used by hundreds of companies, from Weather.com to a variety of smartphone apps. The government also opened up its GPS data in the '80s, a move that gave birth to an entire industry of companies that use the data across millions of devices. A recent report from the McKinsey Global Institute found that, as the New York Times put it, "the value [of open data] to the health care system in the United States could be $300 billion a year, and that American retailers could increase their operating profit margins by 60 percent." Given that U.S. health care costs billions of dollars a year and makes up 17 percent of GDP, companies have more than enough incentive to create applications and tools that can cut costs and drive economic activity within this sector.

In that initial meeting with Park, Corr said that HHS was sitting on mountains of data, most of which wasn't tapped for its full potential. The new position, he explained, had no specific job description, and Corr would make sure to provide plenty of air cover for the CTO so that Park "would actually be empowered to do stuff."

"At the end of the meeting I said, 'This is actually a really amazing job. I'd really love to do this job, but I'll be divorced,'" Park recalled. "Bill replied that that would be bad, and if you're going to be divorced you shouldn't do this job. But why don't you go back and talk to Amy about it and see what she says?

"So I talked to Amy about it, and she was incredibly angry. But then after four days she came back to me and said, 'If they're really creating an entrepreneur in residence job at HHS, it's your national duty to take that job. And as much as I can't believe I'm saying this, I'll move back to the East Coast -- which I hate -- with our baby, to be there with you.'"

And with that, without even moving into the house they'd just purchased a few weeks before -- the house where they planned to spend the rest of their lives -- the two picked up and moved to Washington, D.C. Since that move, Park has been working to answer one question, a question that defines his entire job at HHS: Can he turn the agency into the NOAA of health data, and, in the process, ignite a technological revolution in the health care industry?

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Simon Owens is the director of PR for JESS3, a design agency in Washington, D.C. Read his blog or follow him on Twitter.

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