Todd Park (HHS CTO) On Unlocking Innovation Mojo (#mhs10)

I came out to the Mobile Health Summit (Twitter hashtag #mhs10) in DC today, and I had the opportunity to interview Todd Park who is the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for the US Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). Todd is a great resource for the country and perhaps a surprising bureaucrat (in the nicest sense of the word) given his background as a consultant and then co-founder of athenahealth.

It was an interesting discussion starting around what his role is. The CTO role is a new role in the US government which he describes as an internal change agent who is responsible for working with HHS leadership. He described his objective as forming virtual start-ups to advance new solutions. [A radical departure for those of us that view government as a monolithic organization which is slow to change and full of red tape.]

He said that one of the first questions people ask when they see the new initiatives such as is who were the consultants he brought in from Silicon Valley to do the work. He says that it was all internal people. We talked about that being a cultural change which he described as “creating the right vision” and a “work pathway”. That sounds exactly like what one might see a change agent being responsible for – better leveraging internal assets by changing the framework for service delivery.

We talked about several of the initiatives that HHS has worked on lately:

  1. which is a focused on helping consumers find public and private options for healthcare. He said this was a 90-day implementation. I think if you go to the site you’ll see a few things:
    1. Easy navigation
    2. Content for multiple personas
    3. Links to social media
    4. Videos, widgets, blog postings, iPhone app, etc.

    This is much like what you would expect from a direct-to-consumer company or your health plan.

  2. The Open Health Data Initiative which is focused on taking data which HHS has and making it available for use by companies for FREE. The idea is to stimulate an eco-system around the data and enable better health thru better decisions. He uses the NOAA framework as an example for how they share data to sites like He then mentioned that they had done a brainstorming session earlier this year to think about what could be done with this data (some of which was new to everyone). You can learn more and see the 2-hour YouTube video here, but a talk by Todd Park at another event is below.


  3. The Blue Button Initiative which was launched in October and focuses on getting Medicare members and veterans to get a copy of their own data to print, download, share, upload, etc. Already more than 100,000 have downloaded their data. This should certainly be an enabler for PHR adoption.

We then went on to talk about HHS as a “reservoir of innovation mojo” which needs to collaborate with the public sector. In Todd’s words, he sees government as needing to be a catalyst and enabler. When he joined, his idea was not to fly in like aliens and change HHS, but to come in and find ways to unlock the mojo which already existed.

I asked him if he sees this as being a model for the private sector. Obviously, one of the challenges we have everywhere is figuring out the right way to balance co-opetition and competition. If we’re going to “solve” our obesity epidemic, we need to have some collective knowledge and insights rather than constantly re-creating learnings in a microcosm. On the flipside, companies want to create intellectual property and sustainable differentiation. It’s not easy to balance.

But, Todd mentions that several companies are already following in the “blue button” model such as Gallup / Healthways which is making their Well Being Survey data available publicly (for FREE) for the top 200 cities.

Of course, there is a lot of work to do here. I asked him about what the government was doing to address some things at a national level (e.g., obesity) where in my mind we almost need a reframing such as that which happened with littering, smoking, or wearing our seat belts. He brought up three things that were happening:

  1. National Quality Initiatives
  2. HealthyPeople 2020
  3. Community Level Dialogues

One of the other things that we talked about was the challenge of making changes to health outcomes with the health literacy levels in the US. I suggested that we need to address this systemically as I believe we need to address financial literacy…beginning in the schools and the home. He talked about needing to making learning fun through educational games. He mentioned that the First Lady had been promoting the creation of apps to accomplish this as part of a competition. (This made me think of the iTots article in today’s USA Today.)

We closed with a quick discussion on other things that he’s monitoring that will drive healthcare innovation. He talked a lot about improvements in the provider payment system – think Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) and Patient Centered Medical Homes (PCMH). The goal with these is the change from “pay for volume to pay for value”.

Talking to Todd gives you a positive view on what government can do. I can see him motivating his team and his prior teams to follow his vision and embrace change.  I’d have to agree with Matthew Holt’s article on Todd Park from earlier this year.

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