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Health Data Geeks Get Their Day

Jun 16, 2014

This story is part of a partnership between NPR and Kaiser Health News. It can be republished for free. (details)

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.

Dave Vockell, Lyfechannel, takes first place in the Code-a-Palooza Challenge at Health Datapalooza 2014. (Photo by David Hathcox/Health Data Consortium).

Venture capitalists are pouring more money than ever before into digital health start-ups, more than $2 billion so far this year alone, according to the venture capital firm Rock Health. They 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 of how much it pays individual doctors. The government health plan for senior citizens and the disabled had kept that a 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 I-Hop.

"My kids go there after school one day for 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, and I was like, I could totally use my kids to source a whole bunch of interviews pretty fast."

His three-year-old in a Batman suit proved a great ice breaker, and over a lot of pancakes, 43 seniors told Vockell that knowing which doctors charge more and 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.

Mostly the seniors told Vockell, "I know I have some procedures on the horizon, that I don't 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."

They also asked, "could you make the print really big?" Vockell says. And, he laughs, several mentioned, "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 - and they can print the information out on paper, 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, DC.

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

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

Powers' 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 share some of their savings with him. There's tons of opportunity in streamlining health care, he says.

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

Just like a real gold rush, hitting paydirt means lots of prospecting. Entrepreneurs can't always find the information they really need to make a truly useful product. Dr. Omar Alvi is with a start-up called Accordion Health. Their big idea is to help families estimate future health care spending. So you could type in that grandpa's got hypertension, mom's got 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, but, Alvi says: "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, 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 Alvi's company needs are available yet. A lot of information about procedures, cost and effectiveness remain locked up inside insurance company computers, or in hospitals' and doctors' medical records - information they don't want to share.

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