Sylvia Mathews Burwell: Technology a 'lens through which we can see our communities' health'

LAS VEGAS -- Health and Human Services Department Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell discussed the agency's latest data sharing effort while also revealing information on a forthcoming cybersecurity task force during Monday's opening keynote session at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society's annual conference in Las Vegas.

The data sharing effort--for which a host of health IT vendors, top provider systems and professional organizations all pledged their support--calls on participants to improve consumer access to electronic health information, prevent information blocking and implement federally recognized interoperability standards.

"We still have work to do to get the real value of [electronic] information for providers and consumers," Burwell said.

The cybersecurity task force, added as a requirement to the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act of 2015, aims to help the healthcare industry stay ahead of potential vulnerabilities. Burwell, and HHS in an announcement, called for nominations to the task force that represent "any aspect" of the healthcare system, from health plans and providers to pharmacists and laboratory employees.

"We can all agree that the bedrock of an interoperable health information technology system is privacy and security," Burwell said. "Cyberthreats like those we've seen recently endanger our national security, financial security and the privacy of millions of Americans. ... The task force will bring together leading interests in government and the private sector to develop strategies for addressing our shared cybersecurity challenge."

Throughout her speech, Burwell used anecdotes to explain the necessity of current and future health IT efforts, recounting the efforts of Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Flint, Michigan-based Hurley Medical Center who used electronic health records to detect unsafe lead levels in area children after the city changed its water supply.

"For hospitals, cities, states and those of us at HHS, technology is the lens through which we can see our communities' health," Burwell said. "It lets us envision goals and drive improvements."