AHRQ: Older doctors stifling innovation

By Brian Dolan
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BostonThe Health 2.0 Accelerator pre-Health 2.0 conference meeting kicked off this morning here in Boston with a presentation by the AHRQ's Special Expert in the Healthcare IT Group, Matthew Quinn. The AHRQ is the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and is a part of the Health and Human Services (HHS) department. Quinn said that his goal was to "open up the mysterious world" of government grants and task orders to Health 2.0 companies looking to get a piece of the billions set aside for health IT in the economic stimulus bill.

Of course, it's not going to be easy for Health 2.0 companies. As Quinn's colleague, Senior Advisor on Health Information Technology Issues to AHRQ, Bob Mayes explained, a lot of that struggle stems from the type of person who typically sits at the peer review table, which is where the "who gets what" is decided.

"We are constrained," Mayes said. "They legally define what a scientific peer review panel is ... the types of qualifications required. So it is difficult to influence greatly who sits on these panels. We are talking 30, 40 or 50 people on these panels and there is a great deal of formality around the process," Mayes continued. "The process [of scientific peer review for grants] isn't bad, but it does tend to be made up of people with lots of letters by their name. They tend to be older, and let's just say that they made their contribution 'not yesterday'. So, in the field of technology we really struggle. Many of them still think that the PC is still the interface in the world of communication. And that's a real problem."

(My educated guess is that Mayes was implying that mobile phones are the interface in the world of communication. If so, agreed.)

Quinn explained that AHRQ only gives grants to not-for-profit organizations -- typically academic institutions -- but that doesn't mean that those organizations cannot have for-profit partners. Quinn suggested that Health 2.0 companies looking to leverage the stimulus dollars should partner with the non-profits who have a track record of good "grantmanship", or winning government grants.

We have done some work with emerging technologies like cell phones and others, Quinn said, "We have had some innovative ideas but not as many as we had hoped."

Mayes reiterated Quinn's advice that if you are going to go after grant money, partner with one of the bigger companies that is used to getting grants. These companies are familiar with the "terms of art" used in grant writing, so their proposals tend to be "more palatable" for those around the review table, Mayes said.

As Chilmark Research's John Moore surmised on Twitter during the session, Federal "funding/grants is like most things, [it's] not how good you are, but who you know."

If you are looking to follow Quinn and Mayes' advice to partner with incumbent non-profits for AHRQ grants or partner with established for-profit companies for task orders and other contracts, the two reps from AHRQ can be reached at matthew.quinn AT ahrq.hhs.gov and robert.mayes AT ahrq.hhs.gov.