HHS Launches Community Health Data Initiative

IT companies, researchers, patients, and others will gain access to federal health information through an online data warehouse.

Nicole Lewis, Contributor

June 2, 2010

3 Min Read

The effort to combine health data with technology took another leap forward with the launch of the Community Health Data Initiative, giving the public and private sectors greater online access to government health data.

Department of Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Institute of Medicine president Harvey Fineberg launched the initiative Wednesday at the Community Health Data Forum held at the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine in Washington D.C.

Under the initiative, agencies within HHS, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, will share data online with technology companies, researchers, health advocates, the media, and others. The information can be used to create new datasets, compare data models, and provide richer actionable information that could have a wide impact on public health policy as well as personal health choices.

The Community Health Data Forum highlighted pilot projects conducted by technology companies during the past three months. These companies incorporated data from HHS with Web applications, mobile phone applications, social media, and other cutting-edge information technologies to create new or improved applications.

According to Sebelius, HHS has a wealth of health-related data, such as information on smoking, obesity rates, access to healthy food, utilization of medical services, hospital quality performance, and patient satisfaction.

She also gave examples of how the information can be used, such as a man with heart disease who can find out which local hospital has the lowest incidence of healthcare-associated infections, or a woman with a family history of breast cancer who can look at the cancer rates in her area and discover whether or not she lives in a cancer cluster. "People in communities can actually improve the quality of their healthcare and of the public health system if they have the information to do it," Sebelius said. "To get the full value of the data, we need ideas and expertise from the public and private sector, from communities and individuals about how best to organize the data and how best people are going to be able to use the data," Sebelius added.

HHS deputy secretary Bill Corr said a HHS Health Indicators Warehouse would be deployed online by the end of 2010 to provide data on health performance along with an inventory of practices that are known to improve performance. Users will be able to download the data free of charge and easily integrate it into other Web sites and applications.

"The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has committed to supply the HHS Health Indicators Warehouse with a new set of national, regional, and potentially county-level data on disease prevalence, cost, quality, and utilization of services," Corr said. "HHS is not controlling, choreographing, or paying for the development of these applications; our role is simply to supply high-quality, free community health data and then let you, the innovators, take it from there," Corr explained.

The Institute of Medicine's Fineberg said one of his organization's goals is to bring the best of scientific thinking and evidence to bear on advising government professionals and the public about ways to improve health.

"Information stands at the crossroads of everything that we care about and work on in health to protect health, to advance health, to treat disease [and] to keep people healthy," Fineberg said. "The Community Health Data Initiative is about ways that the public and private sectors working together can make information relevant, available, usable, and valuable in advancing health," Fineberg added.

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