Bringing health information to life

By Paul McCloskey
Thursday, September 10, 2009

In the most recent issue of Government Health IT, the National Cancer Institute’s Ken Buetow refers to “information liquidity,” his way of describing what a mature nationwide health information network would mean to the biomedical research community. It’s a vivid term, conveying information velocity and immediate access to the nooks and crannies of the health research community.

Dr. Les Lenert of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention envisions the public health community being able to consume swaths of health record summary data electronically to spot health threats without having to resort to slow, expensive surveys.

Looking down the road, Dave deBronkart, an IT professional, cancer patient and evangelist for federal health information transparency, tell us: “There’s no reason on Earth why we shouldn’t see a medical equivalent of the National Weather Service,” maps of now inactive data brought to life.

Eventually, I believe we will see a nationwide public health grid, synced to local health exchanges, individual medical practices, even hand-held devices.

But what is it going to take to light up this network in our lifetime? The answer is that the Obama administration must do everything it can to provide public access to health-related data and research it funds, stores, controls or manages. Without a mandate to open these resources to the technology and business communities, the public won’t get the biggest bang for its tax bucks.

The administration has sent powerful signals it plans to pay more than lip service to information transparency. The Office of the National Coordinator has already dropped into the public domain the software for Connect software, a set of health information tools based on NHIN protocols. Meanwhile, the White House has launched data.gov, a site where the public can go to access some government-funded data sets electronically.

This type of openness will hasten the kind of breakthroughs described by the healthcare leaders in our story. But without better access channels — and a continual push for openness — the level of health information transparency envisioned by Buetow, Lenert and deBonkart could be more than a lifetime away.

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