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SXSW: vitaTrackr’s Brian Baum on the Pursuit of Digital Health Interoperability

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".@vitaTrackr Brian Baum on #HealthData interoperability at #SXSW"

Founder and CEO of vitaTrackr, Brian Baum launched the company in 2011 to better facilitate the flow of health data across the healthcare industry. He has focused his career on engaging healthcare consumers with the philosophy that “change in healthcare” hinges on the active engagement and participation of individual consumers in proactively managing their health.

It took just eight years and two months to go from President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 “moonshot” declaration to landing a man on the moon. But in healthcare, we have yet to figure out health data interoperability – this despite the public and private sectors’ best intentions, massive investments, and decades of effort.


Or more accurately: “Health data, WTF? We’ve been to the moon, but…” That was the title of a panel I moderated at the recent South by Southwest Conference (SXSW). According to the panelists, there are multiple factors preventing easy and efficient data sharing. These include a siloed industry full of system incompatibility and rapidly shifting business models of digital health players.

What we learned from the session was that there is still much to be done in the area of interoperability, but gaining a deeper understanding of health IT’s failures and successes, as well as the health consumer can help stakeholders finally break through the log jam.

What’s the hold-up with health interoperability?

The SXSW panelists included:

  • Dr. Karen DeSalvo:  former Acting Assistant Secretary of Health and National Coordinator for Health IT

  • Charles Huang: serial health entrepreneur, Founder and CEO of Lynchpin; former VP in Blackstone’s Equity Healthcare, and mentor/advisor to numerous health startups 

  • Sukanya Soderland: a partner in Oliver Wyman’s Health & Life Sciences and Digital practices with extensive experience in consumerism in healthcare and industry transformation

Together, this group of health IT experts dug into the “why not” of health data interoperability and honed in on three key challenges: A technology market saturated with approaches to the problem, shifting business models, and lack of understanding the many faces of the health consumer.

Technology. The problem of data sharing is not a technological one, the panel agreed. We have the experts and means to build suitable technologies. The real challenge is the complexity of marrying technology to the health industry. There are vocabulary disparities, system incompatibilities, and patient-matching challenges.

Yes, it is difficult. But the technical difficulties are a red herring, a convenient excuse to maintain status quo. Overcoming interoperability challenges hinges less on technological advances and more on the industry rethinking its traditional roles and silos. 

Business models. When the cost of being a data island exceeds the cost of data sharing we will see the “Uberization” of healthcare, the panel said. This will happen faster than anyone imagines, and IT priorities and budgets will immediately refocus on “connecting” to survive, shifting old business models for new ones.

In addition, once we get to a place of successful interoperability, there are sure to be health transformation winners and loser. Data liquidity will create new revenue streams, and the ability to adapt in a connected way will demonstrate “Digital Darwinism.”

The “patient” is a consumer. The “Marcus Welby, MD” era is long over. Despite healthcare’s convoluted payment model, consumers now have choices and those choices will continue to increase exponentially. Those who continue to look at the healthcare consumer as simply a patient will be left behind. Those that advance will be those that do a better job at understanding consumer expectations in the digital economy. 

A new Texas tactic

While much of the digital health industry has its feet stuck in the sand when it comes to interoperability, there are a few bright spots – and one was right outside the SXSW conference room.  Connected~Health Austin, is a new initiative to make Austin the nation’s first fully connected health community. There are two main elements of the program: consumer-mediated consent to share data via a simple app and marketplace connectivity between any and all points of data creation or utilization.

With Connected~Health Austin, the consumer is in the driver’s seat directing data flow at their discretion. Here, an app along with provider aggregate data collectors can create a more seamless and engaging consumer experience to help people manage not only their patient data but their health. The app helps healthcare providers, pharmacies, and other organizations share data freely in a community. This winning ecosystem creates a space where healthcare pieces are integrated to provide better, more efficient, and potentially lower-cost care to the community.

A mission of many

The problems associated with health data interoperability won't be overcome easily, but given the momentum of recent technology advances, consumers' growing influence and demand for a better, more-connected healthcare experience, health data's moon landing may finally be within reach.

Sincere thanks to the panel – an amazing, enthusiastic, passionate, and positive group that should give us all hope for the best health system in the world – Brian Baum.

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