“It’s very simple. If you want to hack healthcare, you’ve got to solve the people equation.”
Fard Johnmar, founder and president of Enspektos, describes a conversation he recently had with Aman Bhandari, who formerly served as a senior advisor to Todd Park, the U.S. Chief Technology Officer, and now helps lead digital health innovation efforts at Merck.
On May 19, my firm, Enspektos, a U.S.-based innovation consultancy, will launch a unique all-Web digital health summit, digihealth pulse Virtual 2014 #DHPV2014. During the event, more than 25 innovators, entrepreneurs, big thinkers and others will share their wisdom about digital health’s present and future.
One of the people speaking at DHPV 2014 is Aman Bhandari. Currently he helps lead digital health innovation activities at the global healthcare company Merck. However, previously he worked in the U.S. government, as senior advisor to the nation’s first two U.S. CTOs Aneesh Chopra and Todd Park. During the event he will share the story of how the White House tech team brought innovation and entrepreneurship to government and how he is using those skills to support digital health innovation-related activities at Merck. This interview touches on some of the themes Bhandari will discuss during his DHPV 2014 talk.
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FJ: This may be hard to imagine for some — especially those who only recently entered the scene — but things were a lot more difficult for people who wanted to innovate in healthcare just a few years ago. Can you talk a bit about what the world looked like back then?
Aman Bhandari: The word I like to use to describe the situation we were in is Paleolithic. The digital revolution had come to many other industry sectors, but healthcare was slow to recognize its importance, and had few structures or incentivesdesigned to bring innovators and industry leaders to the table.
Today, hackathons and accelerators abound in health, but people may not know that government — with the support of a range of forward-thinking partners like Health 2.0 — actually supported the first of these types of events and initiatives in the health sector ahead of private sector organizations.
We still have a ways to go, but thanks to the hard work of a lot of stakeholders across the spectrum (like Todd Park) in building an innovation fabric across the country, it’s easier for innovators to create new products and services.
FJ: Let’s talk about data. Everyone’s focused on the importance of aggregating big and small data sets in health. And, while it’s still hard to access data, things are improving and great strides have been made on thawing the data freeze. Can you talk a bit about why things have improved today, versus yesterday?
AB: I think part of the reason things have changed is because people saw the example set by the U.S. government and recognized what was possible. The open government and open data movements are playing an important role in making data more liquid and this has had an impact in healthcare. Todd Park and others spent a lot of time bringing together the data holders in government with entrepreneurs and you see this highlighted by trips to SXSW Interactive where we evangelized the concept of data liberación. This came out of an effort we launched at Health and Human Services to free high-value data . People working at HHS were sitting on lots of information that could be of great use to doctors, patients, caregivers and innovators. But, we didn’t have a culture where the default setting was to share information and it took some effort to unlock the government’s data stores and open it up to the public. We also had support at the highest levels of HHS and the White House.
But, unlocking health data is only the first step. The second is making it useful. I helped launch, along with Todd, Greg Downing and Bob Kocher, Health Datapalooza which has become an annual gathering for entrepreneurs, data geeks, VCs and policy makers. Since the first event, companies around the country have leveraged liberated HHS data to build products, services and more.
I should also mention that Health Datapalooza helped to spawn one of the first Blue Button competitions, which at its core, is all about giving patients easy access to their own health data — literally at the click of a (blue) button. In an era where everyone’s talking about meaningful use and allowing consumers to access their data, Blue Button provides a great roadmap for how to do this in a way that’s simple.
FJ: Let’s turn to today. You’ve gone from the public to private sectors and currently serve as director of Health IT and Data Strategy at Merck. Since you’ve arrived, Merck has announced a range of interesting partnerships and innovation efforts that look suspiciously (in a good way) like things you launched at HHS. Can you talk a bit about how your government experience has informed your efforts at Merck?
AB: Well, this topic is going to be a big part of my talk during your upcoming conference, so I don’t want to give everything away. But, I fundamentally believe that improving patient care, which is our primary focus, calls for collaboration from all kinds of stakeholders, from entrepreneurs to big companies, to health providers. Collaboration has been our focus at Merck: building partnerships, trying new things and working with everyone in the health sector to figure out what works — and doesn’t.
I’m part of a group called Merck Medical Information and Innovation, which is all about building partnerships with a range of organizations to accelerate digital health. As I told MobiHealthNews back in March, “we see a real system-wide refocusing on values and outcomes measurement as the central theme that’s driving everyone across the industry.” Pharma needs to be at the table and we’re working hard to earn it. One way to understand the work we’re doing is via the infographic we published in late February outlining some of what we are accomplishing with our collaborators.
FJ: One last question. What’s your advice to people seeking to innovate in health?
AB: It’s very simple. If you want to hack healthcare, you’ve got to solve the people equation. In digital health we tend to focus a lot of time and attention on non-human elements like data, software, code, etc. But, talent is always undervalued in healthcare. You won’t get anywhere without the right people. So, go after the best talent you can and the rest will take care of itself.
Hear more from Aman and dozens of other digital health leaders starting Monday, May 19 during digihealth pulse Virtual 2014.
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Disclosure: HIT Consultant is a featured media partner of digihealth pulse Virtual 2014.