Todd Park: More can, should be done to capture unique EHR safety issues

As Chief Technology Officer at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, it's Todd Park's job to be excited about innovation. And, as anyone who's seen him speak live can attest, he takes his job very seriously.

"There has never been a better time to be an innovator at the intersection of IT, data, and health care improvement," Park tells FierceHealthIT in an exclusive interview. "Market incentives are beginning to change in the direction of rewarding innovations that improve health, quality, and efficiency, and information is being liberated at multiple levels to help power these innovations. Over the past 18 months, I've talked with literally hundreds of innovators across America who are doing incredible things with data and IT to improve health and care. Many of them aren't yet broadly known--but many will be soon. To paraphrase William Gibson, the future is here, it's just not ubiquitous yet."

Despite his enthusiasm, Park acknowledges there are some very steep challenges ahead for healthcare, particularly with regard to technology. Read on to learn about some of his concerns, as well as his thoughts on being a "public sector entrepreneur."

FierceHealthIT: What do you see as the biggest barrier to adoption of health IT right now? How can it be overcome?

Todd Park: There's a ton of momentum behind leveraging the power of IT and data to improve health. There's obviously a lot of work that needs to continue to be done on multiple fronts--not just with respect to continual improvement of the technology and the data, but also with respect to processes, people, and culture evolving to fully harness the power of information to help make care better and improve health outcomes.

This is really hard work. But one of the things I love about what's happening right now is that virtually everyone I meet recognizes that the task at hand is not simply to superimpose IT on to the existing health system--it's to use IT and data as key aids to help evolve the health system to a better place. This is the right change management mindset to have--it's the right definition of the mission at hand, and is guiding execution work across multiple sectors in the right direction.

FHIT: What do you think of the findings of the Institute of Medicine's report on health IT safety? What should we expect to come from this?

Park: We appreciate the thoughtful work of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in its new report. It reaffirms years of studies that underscore the tremendous potential of health IT to improving patient care and safety. While the IOM report recognizes the early safety successes of electronic health records, including how computerized drug prescribing has significantly reduced the number of patients receiving incorrect medications, it also highlights how some of the complexities associated with EHRs have introduced new risks into the system.

The report also highlights the importance of health IT to continuously improving healthcare quality and safety by rapidly and reliably flagging potential patient safety risks and preventing adverse events in the clinical setting.

We agree with the IOM that more can and should be done to capture safety issues unique to EHRs when and if they arise. [The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT] will lead an HHS planning initiative to develop a comprehensive EHR safety action and surveillance plan well within the 12-month period recommended by IOM. In formulating this plan, ONC will work with the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and the National Institutes of Health], as well as the broader healthcare community and industry. 

FHIT: You originally worked on the vendor side of the tracks at athenahealth. What are the biggest differences now that you're on the government side of things?

Park: My job as HHS CTO is to be an internal "entrepreneur-in-residence"--a change agent who leads initiatives that harness the power of data, technology, and innovation to help improve health. For each of these initiatives, I recruit top innovators from across HHS and band them together into a "virtual startup"-like team that moves at Silicon Valley speed to get big things done in short timeframes--whether it be the creation of the Health Data Initiative or the launch of HealthCare.gov.

What all of this means with respect to your question is that I actually feel like my life at HHS has been more similar to my life as a private sector entrepreneur than it has been different. I'm working with teams of incredibly talented innovators to build things and make changes happen in rapid timeframes.

FHIT: Do you ever miss being on the vendor side of things?

Park: I loved being a private sector entrepreneur, but I've found that I also love being a "public sector entrepreneur." Over the last two years, I've had the privilege of working with remarkable innovators in government to do really exciting things. I see my job, at its core, as unleashing the mojo of these public sector innovators, giving them the opportunity and air cover to do the creative, supercool things that they've always wanted to do to help the public.

FHIT: Describe the importance of continued collaboration between government and the private sector for health IT.

Park: Collaboration is essential. While HHS can create policies, provide resources, and release open data sets that help support health IT innovation and progress, we recognize that we are only one stakeholder in a broader ecosystem. Our role is really to be a catalyst, helping to create a market environment that unlocks the power of private sector innovation to make magic happen.

It is innovators in the private sector who will actually develop and scale the models, services, and technologies necessary to produce better health, better care and lower cost through continual improvement. This is already beginning to happen at an accelerating clip, and it is very exciting to see. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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