3 Takeaways from AFCEA’s Health IT HHS Panel

  • February 25, 2022
Telehealth session

I recently had an opportunity to attend the AFCEA Bethesda Health IT Summit. It’s an annual event where industry and government come together to share ideas, discuss IT initiatives and — this year — talk about COVID-19 recovery efforts. I had the pleasure of introducing HHS panelists Don Burgess, Deputy Chief Information Officer (DCIO) at HHS; Antigone Dempsey, Director, Division of Policy and Data at HRSA; Ram Iyer, Chief Data Officer at FDA; and Shannon Jackson, Executive Director (SES), Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization at HHS. It was great to hear how their agencies plan to accelerate digital transformations while keeping medical information and critical networks secure. They provided insight into how HHS promotes health IT interoperability to better share information, control disease outbreaks, and improve health equity. They shared their thoughts on how industry partnerships can help them achieve their missions. Here are a few takeaways from the discussion:

1. Modernizing data architecture is key to achieving health equity. Gathering comprehensive data is vital to addressing health inequities. Currently, HHS faces challenges with collecting data from small local providers for various reasons, spanning everything from modernization of IT systems to storing data in Excel or even on paper. This makes data integration very difficult. Inputting data is cumbersome and can result in nonstandard, incomplete data. Having incomplete data prevents HHS from providing in-depth operational insight and reduces its ability to promptly respond to public health emergencies. Delayed responses to public health emergencies can increase inequities. To address these issues, HHS is working to establish a modern data ecosystem that promotes equity-driven decision-making by streamlining the process for collecting medical and social data. HHS is exploring AI to help convert scanned documents into useable information to reduce the burden on localities. Reducing health inequities also means providing the public with the health information they need. The Health Resources and Services Administration (HSRA) has found success by creating public data dashboards. These dashboards enable HRSA to gain greater insight from their data and provide a tool to inform citizens about the health concerns in their geographic areas. This enables both HRSA and citizens to better respond to public health emergencies.

I found it encouraging that HHS is confident in its industry partners’ abilities to provide innovative tools to collect and visualize data to help HHS improve public health. On our end, it is important for industry partners to understand the different users of these tools so that the technologies can be made user-friendly and agencies can leverage their data as an asset. An intuitive user experience reduces frustration, prevents citizens from being overwhelmed with information, and creates a positive interaction between citizens and public health agencies.

2. There is a need to balance data sharing with cybersecurity. HHS needs to share data internally between agencies and externally with providers and the public. There are often concerns that security might be compromised when data is shared. This can make localities reluctant to share sensitive medical data and even make agencies within HHS hesitant about sharing data internally, resulting in siloed or fragmented data. This makes it difficult for HHS to make informed decisions. Agencies such as the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health have resolved this concern by migrating existing data into a secure cloud. Securely aligning data systems across the organization will leverage data across agencies, allowing for data sharing and less duplication of efforts to provide more significant insight.

The goal of balancing data sharing with cybersecurity is not new to industry partners. We’ve helped solve the data conundrum throughout government agencies. Industry partners can help agencies protect their data at all stages of their cloud journey to ensure that private health information is not at risk. It is also critical that industry partners build cybersecurity into all their IT solutions so agencies can improve security across the enterprise while increasing interoperability.

3. HHS is creating a more diverse and inclusive IT vendor ecosystem. HHS has seen its contractor pool decrease during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially as pandemic disruptions significantly impacted small business contractors. As HHS works to regrow its partnerships, it is seeking to work with more underutilized businesses. This aligns with Executive Order 13985, Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government. The Executive Order states that “by advancing equity across the Federal Government, we can create opportunities for the improvement of communities that have been historically underserved, which benefits everyone.”

For HHS, this means finding the right balance between working with large companies with the experience and resources to support massive IT initiatives and working with smaller specialized companies to support tailored initiatives. As industry partners, we have the opportunity to help HHS reach its utilization goals by building more diverse teams to enable more innovative and equitable solutions.

The objectives to improve cybersecurity, enhance the citizen experience, leverage data as a strategic asset and reduce healthcare inequities shape federal health agencies’ IT agendas. I’m grateful that the HHS panel provided an opportunity for industry partners to understand agencies' needs better and explore how emerging technologies can be leveraged in the federal space. These conversations allow us to learn from one another, and I look forward to continuing them in the future.

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Tammy McChain

Tammy is the Senior Vice President of Federal Health and Civilian at NTT DATA Services. She has more than 35 years of proven leadership with broad executive, technical and business management experience in the Federal Government arena, both as a civil servant and as a commercial sector contractor. She has managed contracts spanning the full range of IT services including managed services for large enterprises, design, development, and support of mission critical applications, and has developed customized best practices to create seamless and integrated sourcing strategies for major Federal customers. Before moving to the commercial sector, Tammy worked as a Federal employee for both the Federal Bureau of Investigations and Department of Defense.

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