A Federal Perspective on Health Innovation | Stephen Konya | Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT

The Future of Health Podcast

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The federal government gets a bad rap when it comes to technology. Slow, outdated websites, cost overruns, white-haired senators talking about a series of tubes. Oh, and remember the first ACA enrollment website catastrophe?

So when a government official shows up talking about the future of UI/UX in healthcare, one could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow.

And we did. Actually, it’s not fair to hide behind the editorial “we” in this case. Health:Further Community Editor, Future of Health Podcast host and writer of this piece David Shifrin raised an eyebrow. Two, in fact. And he got respectfully shot down.

Stephen Konya is the Senior Innovation Strategist at the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT, or ONC. He spends a lot of his time traveling, updating entrepreneurs and the rest of the healthcare community on what the government in general, and ONC specifically, is working on in terms of healthcare innovation.

Because, as it turns out, the federal government is putting a lot of effort into innovation, encouraging and supporting advances in the realm of health IT.

So there’s the stereotype: Government isn’t good at innovating. It’s terrible at UI/UX, and why would we think that a federal agency could have anything to offer a lean, scrappy, techie community of clever entrepreneurs?

First of all, that’s wrong. When presented with the idea that the government isn’t known for award-winning UI/UX, Konya laughed.

I would say that it’s easy to paint the entire government, both federal, state local with the brush of not being good at building websites and resources and tools and the like. However I can say that there are certainly a number of very forward thinking innovators within government -and not always the younger ones.
You know there’s [people] from every age group, in all different types of industries and agencies both at the federal level, state level, city level, county level…you name it. There is a cadre of innovators and early adopters and champions of good design that are permeating throughout government in all levels.

Interestingly, Konya sees this as a direct result of the open data movement:

As government started to see the value of putting data that the government owned and curated and so on, putting it out in a usable format where people can connect to it through an open API, there started to be a bigger conversation about how people are consuming that data both from a technical standpoint but also just from viewing it and trying to navigate it. And in some of the applications early on that were being built off of that open data there started to be a bigger conversation and a realization that, ‘wow you can build this in ways that are. More enjoyable for the end user.’ And there started to be a focus on the need for better UX in government.

Second, a lean, scrappy organization of clever innovators pretty much describes ONC. It’s a small agency of 180 people with an annual budget of around $60 million. With that small footprint ONC has “always had a pretty big responsibility when it comes to the implementation of health IT in terms of usability, and the adoption of health IT.” When we hear about 21st Century Cures and interoperability, ONC is leading the charge, getting everyone on board with those regulations.

Konya mentioned that, with all the budget uncertainty and cuts in the works (which appear to be coming true after his comments in August), “ we’re really going to have to buckle down and prioritize or work towards meeting our mandates.” Funny, that sounds exactly like a startup on a shoestring budget. We can debate the merits of cutting the federal budget, but it is interesting and encouraging to see an agency taking that reality and practicing what it’s preaching in terms of effective progress without many resources.

So what are they helping the health IT community focus on? Useability:

When we talk about usability, I see it in kind of two ways. One is the UX side of it. So making sure that when people come into contact with health IT products, whether it’s a third party app that sits on top of an EHR, the EHR itself, or mobile apps or any other application…that they’re being designed in a way that is attractive, convenient. It’s a value add, something that physicians and patients and others look forward to using. But that also the the utility of it is increased, so it’s providing a better benefit. Improving the workflow process and is actually potentially leading to improving the bottom line as well. There’s an economic benefit to it as well. So when I see usability there’s both the user design side of it but then there’s also the utility aspect.

Listen to the podcast for the whole story, including more on what ONC is doing for the 21st Century Cures Act and interoperability. And be encouraged — as we are — that there are many people like Konya building a new culture of innovation and creativity and user-centric design that (we can hope) will help change the outlook for healthcare in this country.

Oh, and Stephen — thanks for being a good sport.

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Photo by Jorge Alcala on Unsplash