New Data First Step in Demystifying Health Care System

Sometimes they are quirky, sometimes they are bereft, and sometimes they are just plain average, but to me, meeting everyday folks is one of the coolest things about being a journalist.

I’ve talked with attendees at combined psychic fair/gun-knife shows, and I’ve interviewed tornado victims in front of their splintered homes.

Disaster coverage makes for some long, stressful days, and you’re not going to win a Pulitzer fishing for quotes at random weekend events. But those assignments were never boring.

Strange as it may seem, though, solitary number-crunching can be interesting too, and that work has never been easier. Large datasets now download quickly with even the most basic Internet connection, and fantastic Web applications facilitate queries that once required complicated programming.

This “data transparency” movement has tremendous implications for a healthcare world that, as we all know, is opaque at best.

That’s why a June 3 email from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was particularly welcome news.

It said that, in appearing before wonks at something called Health Datapalooza IV, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius had announced the release of several datasets.

The data included:

  • Estimates for average charges for 30 types of hospital outpatient procedures from hospitals across the country, such as clinic visits, echocardiograms, and endoscopies
  • County-level statistics on Medicare spending, utilization, and on treatment of beneficiaries with chronic conditions
  • Information on the different brands of electronic health record products used by 146,000 doctors by state, specialty, and each doctor’s level of EHR adoption

A quick click of the mouse showed that, based on 2011 data, per capita Medicare spending in Kansas was about 3 percent below the national average of about $9,003. Missouri was about 1 percent below the national average.

The release followed the department’s move last month to make available hospital-level data on the charges for the 100 most common Medicare inpatient stays.

For people who love spreadsheet and database software, the real fun begins with downloadable data files, such as the ones HHS released this month.

I hope to spend some time with these files sometime soon.

Regular deadlines are also an unfortunate fact of life in journalism, so it’s not always easy to carve out time for data mining.

Thankfully, though, I think my days of covering armed ghost hunters are all in the past.

Health Care

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