Rucker, Siddiqui highlight government data sharing initiatives

Internal data sharing, an exchange framework for HIEs, and support for open APIs are all HHS priorities.
By Jonah Comstock
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The government shutdown was well underway for the entirety of JP Morgan week in San Francisco last week, but that didn’t stop HHS leaders from dropping by auxiliary events in the Bay Area.

National Coordinator Don Rucker delivered the opening address to HIMSS’s own Health 2.0 VentureConnect event, while HHS Chief Data Officer Dr. Mona Siddiqui swung by the StartUp Health Festival for a fireside chat with Digital Health Today Managing Editor Dan Kendall.

At two separate events, Rucker and Siddiqui highlighted the same government priority: Better data sharing, both internal and external.

“Part of the way that we operate, and it seems very natural, is that within the silos that exist we are running independent programs,” Siddiqui said. “Oftentimes, as the programs are run independently, the data streams are independent as well. And it is a mind shift to say those streams should not remain in those silos. We should, in fact, have the default way of operating as sharing, rather than saying no to data sharing. So that really is the shift.”

Siddiqui pointed to HHS’s recently released as a first step the agency has taken to mitigate that problem. The report also demonstrates the transparency the agency is attempting to bring as they work to improve data sharing, she added.

But internal data sharing between the 29 offices that make up HHS is really just an enabling step. Even more value will be created when they extend that data sharing beyond the walls of HHS.

“As we fix our house internally, creating those mechanisms for data sharing with external partners is going to be much easier,” Siddiqui said. “And also bidirectional, so not just HHS being able to share data but also having access to different sources of information that might be much more timely than we currently have access to. I think data really is the mechanism through which the public and private sectors can collaborate and should collaborate to solve the biggest public health challenges we have today.”

Siddiqui mentioned HHS’s opioid crisis codeathon as an example of the power of public-private data sharing.

Speaking to an audience of entrepreneurs, Rucker emphasized three data sharing priorities that will be in the forthcoming ONC final rule.

“One is Congress wanted the various HIEs that are around to actually share data and asked for a trusted exchange framework,” he said. “…Another big component is an absolute prohibition against information blocking. And that prohibition against information blocking. Congress wants your medical records to be available to you electronically without ifs ands or buts. The third part, which is of the most direct interest, is the provision for application programming interfaces, APIs, without special effort. So Congress wants basically open APIs.”

Rucker said that healthcare has been characterized by comparatively primitive computing, and APIs offer a path to modernizing it. Furthermore, they enable data sharing that enhances the value of a provider’s data set.

“I’m sure there have been hundreds of mentions this weekend of big data in healthcare,” Rucker said. “Remember, you don’t actually have big data unless you have an API. Data in healthcare is largely a single provider because you don’t have a uniform API to get that. So we’re working with all the big American payers to do population-level data using the same JSON and FHIR construct.”