How to dig up brilliance with (almost) no funding
HHS solicits expertise on the cheap with contests
No matter what health IT environment the government and industry builds, if you don’t have innovative health-related applications to take advantage of it, then you’re in danger of building an expensive flop, and the goals set for that new environment — to improve health outcomes and reduce costs — won’t be met.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said as much at her department’s second Health Data Initiative Forum in June. The U.S. health system is suffering from high public and private costs and mediocre health outcomes, she said, and the key to changing that is innovation.
But the pace of innovation is at a crawl, she told attendees at the forum. Basically, she said, things in health care are about where they were 30 years ago, despite all of the advances in medicines and medical technology over that period.
The Obama administration is trying to change that. In June, it announced the launch of the Investing in Innovations initiative, which uses prizes and challenges “to accelerate the development of solutions and communities around key challenges in health IT.”
It’s the first administration program to use prizes and challenges to advance an agency’s mission, which was made possible by the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act that President Barack Obama signed at the beginning of 2011. The act makes money available to invest in innovative research and development that will improve the competitiveness of the United States.
The initiative will have $5 million available, which will support a series of up to 15 prize competitions a year. It’s the harbinger of what Tom Kalil, deputy director for policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), called a new paradigm in which prizes and challenges become a strategic tool in every agency’s innovation portfolio.
For example, he wrote in a June White House blog post, as far as health IT is concerned, the competition under the initiative might challenge software developers “to build new tools for the seamless exchange of health information among hospitals, clinics, and physicians with tailored privacy settings, or to create new blue-button apps that enable patients to download and reuse their clinical information.”
The initiative builds on the solid success of similar competitions held under the HHS Community Health Data Initiative and Substitutable Medical Apps, Reusable Technologies Apps for Health challenge that closed at the end of May 2011.
SMART focused on the idea that an open platform could transform the health IT market by reducing the distribution costs for entrepreneurs. With just $5,000 in prize money and a tight 90-day competition, it attracted over 300 supporters and 15 quality submissions, Kalil said.
It "garnered a wide level of attention and attracted a wide field of innovators with what promises to be a significant catalyst for spurring a breakthrough, innovative health IT platform,” he said.
Two recent challenges under the program were announced in September.
The Ensuring Safe Transitions from Hospital to Home challenge asks competing teams to create browser-based applications that will allow patients to access critical information prior to discharge from a hospital. They should also be able to easily transmit that data through the application to another care provider such as a nursing home, home care agency, hospice or specialist.
The winner will get $25,000 from a total $40,000 purse and will have the chance to showcase their application at a major health care conference.
The Reporting Device Adverse Events challenge is aimed at giving patients an easy way to record adverse events associated with implanted medical devices and other devices used in the hospital, clinic or home. The winning system, which will also get $25,000, should support the exchange of health care data with existing EHRs and other hospital information systems.
"Adverse events related to medical devices are significantly underreported given the difficulty of reporting data in real time," said Indu Subaiya, co-chairman and CEO of Health 2.0, which is managing the program for the Office of the National Coordinator of Health IT. "The winning entry in the Reporting Device Adverse Events challenge will improve the reporting of adverse events via Internet-ready devices such as mobile phones, tablets and PCs.”
Although the money involved seems relatively small, ONC said the use of prizes and competitions is widely regarded as a powerful tool to attract innovators from all walks of life, and it makes it possible to have a rapid response to emerging issues that difficult to address with more traditional funding opportunities.
Another component of the initiative will support analysis of the current health IT environment in order to track and model relevant clusters of innovation, while also identifying connections between what appear at first to be disparate innovator communities. That will “identify technology development trends in a fast-moving sector to inform future advisory and policy-making activities,” ONC said.