HHS CTO Bryan Sivak on How Government Can Spur Healthcare Innovation

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together a collaboration network across the department, including organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, and the FDA. Many people in these agencies “work on the same things but don’t really have the opportunity to talk that much,” says Sivak. “We’re trying to break down some of the silos and walls that exist.”

To do that, HHS recently launched a private internal collaboration tool, “which so far has seen good adoption and continued engagement,” Sivak says.

If people from around the government who are interested in healthcare can connect to each other more readily, Sivak thinks there is potential for a lot of new ideas to bubble forth. Nearly 90,000 people work for HHS alone, he says. “Thousands have great ideas, but not the full range of skills or resources to implement them. What if we did some sort of internal ‘conditional collaboration’ system, where people could post their ideas and then ask for what else they need?” Much like Kickstarter or other crowdfunding sites, these resource commitments would only get triggered if the projects hit their thresholds.

A related effort is underway to attract people outside government. A lot of HHS’s ideas center around the massive amounts of healthcare data the government has amassed. One of the data initiatives Sivak’s group is working on involves “democratizing access” to these data sets. “There is a massive amount of valuable information available,” he says. But right now only subject matter experts can access that information, “which necessarily limits the resources that can be brought to bear.”

“I think there’s a lot of things we can do to make our materials more accessible to a wider community, and that will help us to expand the universe of people that we’re talking to, which will theoretically lead to many more and better solutions,” he says.

One aspect of this effort is to find people who don’t necessarily have anything to do with healthcare. A variety of subject matter specialists know parts of the healthcare space inside out, but if his role is only to bring together experts, says Sivak, “I feel like we’re leaving out a large portion of the people that can actually help.” These might be designers, entrepreneurs, developers, and others. But by attracting them to the effort, and making government data more accessible, Sivak says the department could “hopefully get more eyes on the problem, which would lead to more and more creative solutions over time.”

An idea for helping those solutions come forward is to set up an external crowdfunding model of some sort. Sivak’s group is thinking about creating a website that has a few statements of need—something not uncommon for government contracts. “Then imagine that any number of people out there can create their own little crowdfunding pages for that particular thing,” he says. Whichever projects gets the most support from the public, HHS might help get off the ground by contributing some additional funding. But the core idea, he says: “We’re using the crowd to vet potential solutions to these problems.”

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