Can Todd Park Revolutionize the Health Care Industry?

On June 2 of last year, around 400 people gathered at the National Academy of Sciences building in D.C. Three months prior to this event, on March 11, Park had met with about 45 leaders in the health care and tech industries. The two sides had never met each other before, in fact they probably didn't know each other existed. Standing at the front of the room, Park told them that starting within the next few days, his team would begin releasing massive amounts of health care data across all the various agencies under HHS (some of it had already been released, but in obscure locations not easily accessible). Their task, if they chose to accept it, would be to spend the next 90 days building technology tools around that data. The ones that succeeded would be able to present their creations at the National Academy of Sciences for what had been named the Community Health Data Initiative Forum.

This kind of entrepreneurial corralling is evident in all the work Park has done so far since joining HHS. "I have no budget," he said. "I have no formal team. I don't control any government contracts. I don't control any grants. It's perfect, because it actually gives you the kind of freedom to maneuver, to really be a change agent." When he started the job, he created what he calls a virtual startup model. "The idea is you find a particular idea or initiative that you want to get going. And the first thing that I do is I find the three to five people at HHS who had that idea a long time ago, who have been obsessing about it, who know a lot more about it than I do, who have connections and data and resources and people that they can throw in the mix. And then I recruit them to join a virtual startup to do this thing."

Given his roots, it's not surprising Park is trying to run his department like a Silicon Valley company. The deadlines his teams set are no longer than 90 days out, in fact they're often shorter. Each project moves at a rapid velocity, with him acting as the virtual startup's CEO. Once one reaches maturation, he hands it off and then moves onto the next virtual startup.

At the June 2 event, the people he'd met with 90 days prior came together and showcased 20 tools they'd either improved upon or built from scratch using the newly released data. The idea, Park said, was to maximize publicity for these tools by revealing them all at once. And then following this round of publicity, he hoped other companies he hadn't met with would catch wind of the data and begin creating tools of their own, spawning a self-perpetuating arms race that would generate new tools at a faster and faster rate. The end goal -- or the indicator of Park's success -- would be when he no longer needed to publicize the data at all.

Though the tools displayed for the forum had only been created in the span of 90 days, it wasn't difficult to immediately grasp their intrinsic worth. For its contribution, Microsoft began pulling information from an HHS site called Hospital Compare. The site contains detailed quality and patient satisfaction information from hospitals across the country, but a recent survey found that 94 percent of Americans don't even know it exists. Microsoft downloaded the information and then integrated it into Bing's search, so now when you perform a search for any particular hospital, in addition to Bing's normal Web results you'll also receive -- in a gray box -- the patient satisfaction for that particular hospital versus the state average, followed by a link to more information. That link sends users to Park used Bing recently to determine which hospital will help in delivering his second child. "We're eating our own dog food, as it were," he said, laughing.//>

One of the many data points released by HHS is a directory of community health centers -- where the uninsured can go to get free or inexpensive health care -- available across the country. A tool called iTriage had already built iPhone and Android applications that allow a user to type in a medical treatment and then search for the closest providers offering those treatments. For the Health Day Initiative, the company simply added in the government's community health center data to its search. According to Park, tens of thousands of iTriage users have found community health centers since it integrated them into its results.

Surprisingly, the most popular tool -- indicated by the long line of people who gathered to try it at the event -- didn't have any direct, immediate benefit. A company named MeYou Health created a game called Community Clash, which acts as a kind of Black Jack for community health data. The game allows you to plug in your city and then pick a rival city with which to compete. Several health indicators are displayed on cards and you have to switch out the indicators in your city that you believe are weaker than the rival city's. "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," Park said. "In a world where Farmville goes from zero to 70 million users, I think the person who starts 'Healthville' and gets 50 million users, that person will be one of the most important health care figures in the 21st century, because they'll do more in that one stroke to advance health care education than all public health announcements combined."

Alexander Howard, who writes about open government initiatives for O'Reilly Media, has been closely following Park's work since around mid 2010. As he got settled into the role of covering Gov 2.0, as open government is sometimes called, he kept hearing Park's name come up. He had been vaguely aware of the new CTO before then as someone who had come from the private sector and was a successful entrepreneur. "That's not that common in government, necessarily," Howard told me in a phone interview. "He was part of this class of people who had done interesting and important things in the private sector who were coming into government to try to use technology to make things better."

Howard argued that it was Park's connections to the private sector that allowed him to act as a catalyst between HHS and outside companies. "What he's done -- in terms of socializing it to the development community, in terms of being a bridge to them, in terms of being a spark -- cannot be overstated," he said. "It's not only his ability to reach the relevant players, but being able to explain it as someone who has been in their shoes, who knows what their concerns are and can speak the language of someone outside of government --  I think that's a big deal."

I asked Howard to put Park's work into the larger context of open government initiatives, including ones run by non-HHS agencies. How would open data for health care compare to the industry effects of releasing NOAA and GPS data? Given that health care takes up such a large chunk of our GDP, should we expect to see much greater economic activity from the HHS projects? "With health care we're talking about hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars," he replied. "We're talking about unbelievable costs and really serious outcomes in terms of people not getting the care that they need, that they deserve. We're seeing people not being able to make informed decisions based upon really good data, for a lot of reasons. The existing privacy laws are there for good reason, but they make it difficult for organizations to draw the kind of insights from them that they need. It's created so many problems for people in health care." And because the stakes are so high, "any percentage improvement, a small one, adds up to ridiculous amounts of money" saved.

Perhaps the most ironic thing about these open data initiatives is the fact that the more successful they are, the less credit Park and HHS will receive for implementing them. These projects are designed so that they can be seamlessly integrated into already-existing tools, and the users, because they're not accessing the information directly from a government website, are often unaware of where the data is coming from. "I don't know if people really realize that when they turn on their TomTom or use their Garmin that they should be grateful to their government for having released that data, but they sure as hell are grateful for the ability to figure out where they're going," Howard said. "They're not going to recognize [Park's work] as an outcome of the government. They're not going to recognize it as something called Health 2.0. They're just going to go use the same thing they've been using for awhile and find that it has more information about the stuff that they care about."

I couldn't help but assume that Park would be fine with this. As Bryan Roberts had relayed to me, Park has never been afraid to put his ego aside to make way for an idea. On June 9 of this year, he plans to host the second annual Health Data Initiative Forum, and he told me that this time there are companies he's never even heard of competing for the coveted slots so they can showcase their tools to the world -- over 75 applied, and 45 were selected. If developers are now creating applications without needing the CTO to act as the catalyst between the private sector and government, then perhaps Park can soon make a second attempt to retire and move back to California with his wife and children so that he can spend the rest of his days simply as a father and husband.

Maybe this time he'll succeed.

Images: 1. tedeytan/Flickr; 2. Todd Park/Wikimedia Commons.

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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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