“Health Data WTF? We’ve been to the moon, but….”

SXSW 2017 My Panel Experience

“Health Data WTF? We’ve been to the moon, but….”

By Brian Baum

The topic of health data – sharing, interoperability and connectivity receives more than its fair share of attention. HIMSS 2017 reinforced that, as did HIMSS 2016, 2015 and probably the last ten years – at least.

Last year, I decided to try a different spin at the one venue where “out there” is commonplace – SXSW.  I submitted a panel proposal entitled “Health Data WTF? We’ve been to the moon, but…”.

The intent was not to point fingers, but step back and try to sort out exactly how we got where we are – despite the public and private sectors best intentions and massive investments.

With the kernel of an idea and an unconventional approach, I recruited a high impact panel to explore this vexing issue.  Dr. Karen DeSalvo – former Acting Assistant Secretary of Health and National Coordinator for Health IT. Charles Huang serial health entrepreneur current founder/CEO of a health startup Lynchpin, former VP in Blackstone’s Equity Healthcare and mentor/advisor to numerous health startups.  Sukanya Soderland – partner at Oliver Wyman with extensive experience in consumerism in healthcare and industry transformation.

To my surprise, the panel was accepted by SXSW. Saturday 3/11, our panel took the stage at SXSW at the Austin Chamber of Commerce office.

The framework started with a look back at what can be achieved with “will” vs technology. That context was President Kennedy’s proclamation in 1961 to put a man on the moon within ten years.  8 years and two months later, in 1969 Neil Armstrong landed on the moon and returned to talk about it.

The contrast to this, was a video I dug up from 1971.  It was Dr. Larry Weed delivering a grand round presentation on the problem oriented medical record. I excerpted about two minutes here, but would highly recommend the entire 54 minute presentation.  It is reasonably safe to say Dr. Weed could have keynoted HIMSS 2017 and received a standing ovation for his vision, albeit one he outlined 46 years ago.

The dichotomy is beyond striking and supports the adage – “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Absent the right will, no amount of money, regulation, committees, conferences and dialogue can accomplish greatness.

While many peripheral sectors have cashed in on the three trillion dollar healthcare spend – not all of it benefits the object of healthcare – the patient.

Our panel explored this issue from a variety of perspectives:

  • Policy and federal investment;
  • Private investment flowing into health innovation but frustrated by thousands of different approaches to health data sharing;
  • The role of the consumer and how other industries have experienced a consumer driven transformation.

At this point, our audience began to look a bit discouraged.  We then moved on to address the challenge of push vs pull.  In other words, how do we create a health system culture of connectivity for business survival, vs. connect because “we said to”?

The example referenced was “Connected~Health Austin.” An initiative recently announced to make Austin the nation’s first fully connected health community. There are only two elements of the program – consumer mediated consent to share data via a simple app and marketplace connectivity between any and all points of data creation or utilization.  The consumer is in the driver’s seat directing data flow at their discretion.  Beyond that, as they say in the “real business world”, let the best solution win. If you’re a provider – how do you use data to provide a better patient experience? To engage patients as they manage their health. A pharmacy – to support and assist your customers in monitoring and managing their health.  A app developer/provider aggregate data and provide an engaging consumer experience to help your customer manage their health or condition.  In other words, create a system of healthcare where the pieces are integrated to provide better, more efficient, lower cost care to everyone. Where each organization competes on providing the best at what they do, vs who controls the largest data store.

The jury is out, but based on the enthusiasm we saw at our standing room only session, there’s a lot of interest in a competitive health system where every party shares a common goal – to delight the consumer in sickness and health.

So what’s the takeaway of this non-conventional look at the state of health data?

  • Technology – the problem of data sharing is not a technological one. Health data is more complex then financial data, there are vocabulary disparities, there are system incompatibilities, and there are patient matching challenges. Yes it is difficult. But the technical difficulties are a red herring, a convenient excuse to maintain status quo.
  • Business Model – when the cost of being a data island exceeds the cost of data sharing we will see the Uberization of healthcare. It will happen faster than anyone imagines. IT priorities and budgets will immediately refocus on “connecting” to survive.
  • Business transformation – there will be winners and losers. Data liquidity will create new revenue streams. The ability to adapt in a connected health industry will demonstrate “Digital Darwinism”.
  • The “patient” is a consumer – the “Marcus Welby, MD” era is over. Despite the convoluted payment model of healthcare, the consumer of health services now has choices and those choices will increase exponentially. Those who continue to look at the health consumer as “simply a patient”, will be left behind. Consumer expectations have been reset in the digital economy.  They may tolerate the traditional abuse of healthcare – long wait times, inconvenient access, fax machines, filling out endless forms, but that dam is cracking.

BTW – sincere thanks to the panel – an amazing, enthusiastic, passionate and positive group that should give us all hope for the best health system in the world.


Brian Baum, Founder/CEO vitaTrackr, Inc.

Dr. Karen DeSalvo, former Acting Assistant Secretary of Health and National Coordinator of Health IT

Sukanya Soderland, Partner Oliver Wyman

Charles Huang, Founder/CEO Lynchpin


Brian J Baum is the founder/CEO of vitaTrackr, a consumer-driven approach to health data.


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