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HHS initiative offers health data, promises improved community health

The Community Health Data Initiative, launched last week by the Department of Health & Human Services, intends to make federal health data available to people ranging from software developers to researchers to community leaders. According to HHS, doing so will foment efforts to promote health, prevent disease and measure care quality.

The HHS’ health data sets are available now for download or as interactive Web-based files, though by year’s end the agency intends to make them available through a Web portal. These data sets include information on hundreds of health indicators, such as rates of obesity and smoking. Many come from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services within HHS and have never been published before. The data sets can be viewed at a national level or broken down either geographically (to a state or regional level) or demographically (by age, gender and race).

The value for community and health leaders is readily apparent, and rewards will be reaped almost immediately. For anyone who isn’t a policy wonk — a large group that includes consumer health advocates, researchers and health care providers, not to mention the general public — the benefit of the health data will, as HHS sees it, come through the development of such consumer-facing technology as interactive maps, dashboards, games and online competitions.

Few will directly question this bold initiative to improve patient education, which is, above all, the key to a happy and healthy population. Unfortunately, identifying use cases for health data sets before they have been developed puts the cart before the horse.

There’s little doubt that the health data will be put to use — the multitude of applications developed for the Apple iPhone or Google Maps shows that software developers are limited only by their imagination. The key to the Community Health Data Initiative’s success, however, will come from efforts that go beyond simply identifying who is prone to a particular condition, to establishing effective treatment and prevention plans that can incorporate information specific to a particular geographic area or demographic group. Only then will CIOs and CMIOs be able to incorporate the health data into existing, and future, electronic health record systems to help physicians work with patients to set meaningful health improvement goals.

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