Power To The Health Data Geeks

Jun 16, 2014
Originally published on June 16, 2014 1:09 pm

A computer programmer and a kid in a Batman suit walk into a pancake house ...

It sounds like a joke, but it really happened, and now the programmer — Dave Vockell — has a new product to bring to market. It's an app to help seniors talk to their doctors about medical care.

"Like all great health care breakthroughs, it happened at the International House of Pancakes," he says, half-jokingly.

Venture capitalists are pouring more money than ever into digital health startups — more than $2 billion so far this year alone, according to the venture capital firm Rock Health. These investors are betting that entrepreneurs can help doctors, hospitals and insurers become leaner — which the Affordable Care Act strongly encourages.

Vockell's endeavor started back in April, when Medicare released a huge database detailing how much it pays individual doctors. The government health plan for the disabled and for adults ages 65 and older had kept that payment information secret for decades.

So when Medicare suddenly dumped an entire year's worth of data, finally making public millions of transactions, coders like Vockell tried to figure out how to make it useful for seniors.

Enter the IHOP.

"My kids go there after school one day for [the] funny face pancake lunch," he says. "There were lots of seniors there. And my kids run around, and the seniors love when they come up and sit with them." That's when it hit him, Vockell says: "I could totally use my kids to source a whole bunch of interviews pretty fast."

His 3-year-old in a Batman suit proved a great icebreaker; over a lot of pancakes, 43 seniors told Vockell that knowing which doctors charge more and which charge less wouldn't necessarily send them shopping for the lowest price. Seniors generally like their doctors and don't want to shop for new ones.

But many in the pancake house that day did tell Vockell that they had some medical procedures on the horizon and weren't sure what the procedures would cost, entail or require of them. "I'd love to get some insight into that," they told him.

They also asked, "Could you make the print really big?" Vockell says. And several added, he says with a laugh, "The blueberry syrup is magnificent."

So Vockell developed a website that helps seniors understand the procedures their doctors are recommending, and the costs — so they can start conversations with their doctors. The site also helps users print out the information in really big type.

It's too early to say whether his product will be the hot new topic on the shuffleboard circuit, but it was a winner at the big Health Datapalooza conference this month in Washington, D.C.

Big data on health care is the raw material for a whole new segment of the information technology sector. Entrepreneurs like Sean Power are also exploiting databases such as the price list that Medicare released this spring.

"That's hot," he says. "Anytime anybody releases a new set of data, we get excited."

Power's company, karmadata, is founded on the idea that software engineers can find ways to use big data to save the government or large companies money — and that such organizations will share some of their savings with him. There's a lot of opportunity in streamlining health care, Power says.

"It's a great time to be starting a company in the health care data space," he says. "I think the gold rush is on."

Just like in a real gold rush, hitting pay dirt requires a lot of prospecting. Entrepreneurs can't always find the information they really need to make a truly useful product.

Dr. Omar Alvi is with a startup called Accordion Health. This firm's big idea is to help families estimate future health care spending. So you could type in that Grandpa has hypertension, Mom has diabetes, and one of the kids has asthma, and then get some idea of how much that's all going to cost — and maybe even shop for the best price. A great idea, Alvi says, but he adds: "Each patient is very different. And so in order to be able to make a meaningful prediction, you have to have a lot of data, so you can say [that] patients just like this went through these problems as they moved through the medical system. That's really where it requires hundreds of millions of data points."

And not even close to the millions of data points that Alvi's company needs are available yet. A lot of information about procedures, cost and effectiveness remains locked up inside insurance company computers, or in hospitals' and doctors' medical records — information that insurers, hospitals and doctors don't want to share.


This story is part of a reporting partnership between NPR and Kaiser Health News.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

A computer programmer and a child in a Batman suit walk into a pancake house - sounds like a joke. But now that programmer has a new product to bring to market and he may strike it rich. Venture capitalists think there's a lot of money to be made making health care more efficient. They've poured more than $2 billion into digital health startups just this year. That's according to the venture capital firm Rock Health. But Eric Whitney reports that while programmers are on the case, they need a lot more information to make a real difference.

ERIC WHITNEY, BYLINE: Remember back in April when Medicare released that huge database of how much it pays individual doctors? No? Plenty of software engineers like Dave Vockell in San Francisco do.

DAVE VOCKELL: Like all great health care breakthroughs, it began at the International House of Pancakes.

WHITNEY: Vockell was excited because Medicare was releasing information it had kept under wraps for years - how much the government health plan for senior citizens pays each doctor for each service he or she provides. Medicare dumped an entire year's worth of data, finally making public millions of transactions. Vockell knew that information could be really useful for Medicare uses but he wasn't sure exactly how. Enter the IHOP.

VOCKELL: My kids go there after school one day for funny face Tuesday pancake lunch, and I had been with them. And I was like, there's lots of seniors there. And my kids run around. And the seniors love when they came up and sit with them. I was like, I could totally use my kids to source a whole bunch of interviews pretty fast.

WHITNEY: Sure enough his 3-year-old in a Batman suit proved a great icebreaker. And over a lot of pancakes, 43 seniors told Vockell that knowing for the first time ever which doctors charge more and less wouldn't necessarily send them on a shopping spree for the lowest price. Seniors generally like their doctors and don't want to shop for new ones. That was the first thing he learned.

VOCKELL: Two was I know I have some procedures on the horizon that I don't exactly know exactly what they mean that I have to do or what they're going to cost me. I'd love to get some insight into that. Three was - could you make the print really big? And number four was the blueberry syrup is magnificent.

WHITNEY: So Vockell came up with a website that helps seniors understand the procedures their doctors are recommending and the costs to help them have the conversation they've always wanted with the doctors but didn't know how to start. And they can print information out on paper in really big type. It's too early to say whether lyfechannel's product will be the hot new topic on the shuffleboard circuit but it was a winner at the big Health Datapalooza conference this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: The grand prize winner and team that will be taking home $20,000 for their fantastic work is lyfechannel with smart health hero. Come on up.

WHITNEY: Big health care data is the raw material for a whole new segment of the IT sector. Entrepreneurs like Sean Power are exploiting the rich information in databases like the price list Medicare released this spring.

SEAN POWER: Yeah, that's hot. So anytime anybody releases a new data set we get excited.

WHITNEY: Power's company Karmadata is based on the idea that software engineers like him can find ways to use big data to save the government or big companies money and that they'll then share some of that savings with him. He says health care is so bloated and inefficient that there's tons of opportunities to streamline it.

POWER: It's a great time to be starting a company in the health care database - yeah I think that the gold rush is on.

WHITNEY: And just like a real gold rush, hitting pay dirt means lots of prospecting. The Medicare data is a rich vein, but entrepreneurs can't always find the information they really need to make a truly useful app. Dr. Omar Alvi is with the start-up called Accordion Health, their big idea is to help families estimate their health care spending. So you can type in that grandpa's got hypertension, mom has diabetes and one of the kids has asthma, and then get some idea of how much all that's going to cost and maybe even shop for the best price. A great idea, but Alvi says...

OMAR ALVI: Each patient is very different, so in order to make a meaningful prediction you have to have a lot of data so you can say patients just like this went through these problems as they moved through the medical system. So that's really going to require hundreds of millions of data points in order to pull out meaningful information.

WHITNEY: And not even close to the millions of data points Alvi's company needs are available yet. A lot of information about procedures, costs and effectiveness remains locked up inside insurance company computers or in hospitals and doctors medical records, information they don't want to share. Software entrepreneurs say the Medicare data release in April was monumental and that the more big databases geeks can get their hands on, the more breakthroughs they can come up with to make health care leaner and less expensive. For NPR News, I'm Eric Whitney.

WERTHEIMER: This story is part of our reporting partnership between NPR and Kaiser Health News. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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