Using HHS Health Data: Got an App for Quality Care?

Janice Simmons, June 3, 2010

The challenge was issued just a mere three months ago by the Department of Health and Human Service (HHS) and the Institute of Medicine: Find innovative ways to distribute public health data that is local, regional, and national to help providers, patients, and local leaders across the country improve healthcare.

On Wednesday in Washington, DC, that call was met with the introduction of the Community Health Data Initiative (CDHI)—which will use free Web applications, mobile phone applications, social media, video games, and other cutting edge technologies, as HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said, to "put our public health data to work."

"It's a participatory venture," Sebelius said at a briefing introducing the initiative. "This project was launched by a pretty simple belief that people in communities can actually improve the quality of their healthcare and their public health systems if they just have the information to do it—to make it happen."

"Our national health data constitute a precious resource that we are paying billions to assemble, but then too often wasting," Sebelius said. "When information sits on the shelves of government offices, it is underperforming. We need to bring these data alive."

The initiative highlighted data currently available: HHS already has posted 117 data sets and tools on the Data.Gov site since its debut in May 2009. These data sets and tools include:

  • Hospital by hospital quality performance statistics compiled by CMS to help inform consumer choices regarding where to get care (with additional statistics on nursing homes, dialysis facilities and home health agencies).
  • A regularly updated data set representing technologies available for licensing from the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, helpful to entrepreneurs and companies looking to drive innovation.
  • A household cleaning products data set that links over 4,000 consumer brands to health effects that the manufacturers are submitting and which allows scientists and consumers to research products based on chemical ingredients
  • Detailed summaries of Medicare expenditures on physician services, which allow the public to understand patterns of Medicare spending and analyze the types of services being delivered to address the health needs of the Medicare population.

But new efforts are being pursued as well. To promote community health data, HHS Deputy Secretary Bill Corr said that a new web-based health indicators warehouse would be launched online at the end of this year—providing data on national, state, regional, and county health performances on rates of smoking, diabetes, obesity, and other health indicators.

With the site, data will be easily downloadable and made available to other sites. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will be supplying new data to this site on disease prevalence, cost, quality, and utilization of services.

But at the introduction of the CDHI, a number of new innovations were unveiled as new examples at the briefing to show the power of public health data in providing better healthcare. The briefing can be viewed at HHS' Open Government website.

Janice Simmons Janice Simmons is a senior editor and Washington, DC, correspondent for HealthLeaders Media Online. She can be reached at
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