Karen DeSalvo looks back on eight years of "historic changes" in healthcare

By Heather Mack

The shift of government, the private sector and consumers of coming together to tackle the biggest problems in healthcare is starting to show, and the best indication is the innovation in digital health. But in order to do more, all parties must continue working together and providing opportunities in the form of policies, partnerships and information.

That was the takeaway from a speech by Karen DeSalvo, HHS’s Acting Assistant Secretary for Health, at Health 2.0.

“We’ve seen some historic changes in the last eight years,” said DeSalvo. “And I think sometimes we begin to take them for granted, but it’s been an incredible opportunity to really put people first and recognize that they are at the center of all of this.”

It was that mindset that led the HHS to launch “A Bill You Can Understand” challenge, a design and innovation initiative to solicit new approaches and to draw attention to the difficulty of understanding medical bills. Before announcing the winner, DeSalvo brought the audience up to speed on the progress of the last few years. 

Beginning with the Affordable Care Act, changes in healthcare policy have enabled health systems to nab some $500 billion worth of savings, DeSalvo said, and much of that is thanks to the ability of the healthcare delivery system to reform innovation.

“This has been about working to see that the data collected and stored in electronic health records is more readily available to people, but it is also about leveraging tools whether that’s an app to give more access to primary care or give somebody more ready access to their home health aide,” she said.

DeSalvo outlined the opportunity for HHS is to link the work they are doing to deliver better care and payment models to the day to day component that touches lives more directly.

“I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but data is the currency of our future; it is the driver to our new economy, and healthcare is a part of that. It’s such a tremendous part of the story of how we’ve gone from 15 percent of the system using electronic health records to almost all of them,” she said. “It means that now that we have all this data that can be made available, it is now actionable, and we’re seeing so many great examples of how data is beginning to flow on behalf of consumers.”

DeSalvo said they still aren’t where they want to be, and she would like to see a common set of standards across the industry, especially for situations where people need them the most.

“Arriving at the emergency room, the doctors’ office, or when you are trying to self manage a chronic disease or check immunization records online on a Sunday night before enrolling the kids in camp – these are ways that we’ve been trying to push the industry,” DeSalvo said. But beyond that, they are looking for ways to drive technology beyond EHRs. They are thinking about ways to support telehealth, DeSalvo said, and the free but secure flow of information.

“We are working to push out the data, through expecting and sometimes requiring, in some cases, publishing APIs, so the doorways to data are open,” said DeSalvo. “[This is] not only for the benefit of the healthcare system or public health, but for the individual consumer themselves.”