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Treating the Whole Patient: How HHS is Connecting Health and Social Services with Open Data

When we think about improving someone’s health, we don’t always consider issues such as affordable housing, access to green space and local parks, the foster care system, access to food banks, or domestic violence hotlines. However, we all live within complex environments that play an important role in our overall well being—so much so that they can prevent even the most well-crafted medical diagnoses and treatment plans from being effective.

As a result, patients continually fall through the cracks because they struggle with issues outside the provider’s expertise or influence. For example, one study published in the Journal of Nutrition indicates that children who experience food insecurity, or limited supplies of healthful food, are 30 percent more likely to be hospitalized by age three. Food insecurity also increases lack of self-management activities for diabetics by over 40 percent, and it’s not hard to see why: If you’re worried about where your next meal is coming from and when it will be, you’re likely to forget to check your blood sugar. The missed opportunity in connecting health with social services leads to large care gaps and ultimately results in higher costs throughout the health system.

Four out of five physicians think patients’ unmet social needs lead to worse health outcomes, and believe that these needs are just as important to a patient’s overall health as medical conditions are. Yet, doctors who treat low-income, underserved or otherwise vulnerable individuals often don’t know how to engage their patients on issues outside the realm of medical care, including safe housing, food security, literacy, or language barriers, all of which are often referred to as the “social determinants of health.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is working to link the fields of health care and social services through data. HHS is progressive in its steps to make more federal data open and available to startups, large companies, universities and nonprofits, which can then create technology solutions and innovations to make social services and economic resources accessible to those who need them most.

Thanks to the efforts of the HHS IDEA Lab and all the HHS divisions that contribute to, a wealth of health and social services data is openly available online for anyone to use. We’re starting to see some incredible innovations using these and other open government data resources, including:

  • Healthify: This startup’s platform creates the infrastructure necessary for providers to help vulnerable populations access the resources they need to thrive. Leveraging open data at the federal and local level, Healthify allows care providers to identify their patients’ or members’ social needs and connect them to appropriate services, while allowing providers and social workers to manage and engage populations and better coordinate referrals.
  • Purple Binder: This company allows individuals to connect to resources where they live, work and play, by helping them determine what resources they need and whether or not they’re eligible for those resources. Purple Binder also provides a directory containing the information they need to actually access social services.
  • ParksRx: Building off National Park Services’ open data and its Healthy Parks Healthy People Initiative, ParksRx is a community-centric, provider-supported initiative. Ultimately, the goal of the initiative focuses on decreasing incidence of conditions like obesity, asthma and mental health disorders through provider prescriptions of outdoor time in green spaces and local parks. It also tracks behavioral and attitudinal changes in both health care providers and patients.

HHS is serious about using data to reach under-served communities and on February 12, government data holders came together with the innovation community to draw attention to these creative technology solutions. This event, hosted by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT and HHS IDEA Lab and held at 1776, raised several important areas for future work.

Many in the audience expressed an interest for raw, unprocessed data from the federal government. While privacy considerations often prevent the release of raw data, government representatives were very interested in having a broader conversation about how to protect privacy while still providing entrepreneurs and social services organizations with the information they need to create innovative tools that can help to improve health.

More standardized data is needed on resource locations, so that initiatives like Purple Binder and the Open Referral Initiative don’t need to build their own directories by making individual calls to different service providers. Similarly, several entrepreneurs cited a strong need for Medicaid data specifically, in order to help them quantify savings and show the benefits of increased coordination between healthcare providers and social services, including decreased duplication of tests or services, and finding gaps in services where they exist.

In addition, both the government speakers and the audience expressed interest in working with the government to support telehealth. This is an area where HHS can help convene groups and better understand some of the challenges and barriers in the way of more widespread adoption of telehealth technology.

HHS is dedicated to providing open data and resources to the health innovation community. If you’re interested in getting involved, here are a few ways to contribute to the work of ONC and IDEA Lab:

  • eLTSS Standards & Interoperability Initiative at ONC: This initiative will focus on identifying and harmonizing electronic resources that can enable the creation, exchange and re-use of interoperable person-centered records for use by health care and community-based social service providers, payers and the individuals they serve. They’re looking for companies to pilot these standards, so now is a great time to get involved.
  • This federal portal makes high value health data more accessible to entrepreneurs, researchers and policymakers in the hope of creating better health outcomes for all. It’s a one-stop shop to locate data on clinical-care-provider quality, nationwide health service provider directories, databases of the latest medical and scientific knowledge, consumer products, community health performance, government spending and much more.

Video from the event, including more information on HHS’ open data work to support social determinants of health, is available here. As always, feel free to keep in touch via Twitter via @HHSIDEALab and @ONC_HealthIT.