HHS Chief Technology Officer Bruce Greenstein: Government, health plans face similar data challenges

HHS Chief Technology Officer Bruce Greenstein discusses the federal government's enterprise data strategy on Tuesday at the Medicaid Health Plans of America conference.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—When it comes to maximizing the potential of its vast troves of data, the Department of Health and Human Services has a lot of work to do.

Such was the overarching message of Bruce Greenstein, HHS’ chief technology officer, during a presentation at the Medicaid Health Plans of America conference on Tuesday.

In fact, some of HHS’ challenges are similar to those faced by health insurers, which may find it difficult to combine data from various parts of their enterprise, such as their financial system and their care management system.

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“That’s not unlike what we have here,” Greenstein said. “In fact, at HHS, most of the systems are made to stand on their own.”

For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a system to record events like births and deaths, but “they don’t really think about it as a way for Medicaid health plans to get use of that data and be able to figure out if initiatives that they’re running are helping to close care gaps somewhere else,” he noted.

Thus, HHS is working on an enterprise data initiative that involves putting all the data from the agency’s various divisions together and making it usable. Just like private companies, some of the challenges HHS faces include data governance, asset mapping and data use agreements.

Greenstein also quickly learned that there were cultural barriers standing in the way of internal data sharing, with different divisions reluctant to share what they have amid concerns about what the information would be used for or if others could understand its nuances.

But it was a “game-changer,” Greenstein said, when he and his colleagues approached people with a specific goal in mind: combining data from various sources to help understand and tackle the opioid epidemic.

“People felt sympathetic but also empowered—that they could have a role in saving lives sooner rather than later,” he said.

Specific use cases like that, Greenstein added, can form the foundation for an overall enterprise data strategy.

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In terms of information sharing beyond HHS, Greenstein admitted that he wasn’t immediately sure how committed the Trump administration was to the concept of open data.

But now that he’s been in his role for several months, “I can give you every assurance, from the White House to OMB, open data is seen as a major lever for increasing the volume and activity in our economy,” he said.

Simply providing the data, though, isn’t enough to truly make a difference and spark innovation. So one of Greenstein’s goals is to reduce the lag time between when data is collected and when it is released.

The idea is to have the private sector receive healthcare data in real time and turn it into insights that have real market value. Ideally, Greenstein said he’d like to get healthcare data to mimic how weather and GPS data from the government is used, which have “ignited economies unto themselves” in the private sector.

Getting data released in a more timely manner is also critical for addressing public health crises like the opioid epidemic, he noted.

“The most pressing public health crisis we’ve had in this country in ages and ages, and the baseline data that we’re using right now is from 2015,” Greenstein said. “We’ve got to do better than that.”