Business Team Meeting Discussion Break Concept

Health policy researchers and technology professionals don’t typically approach problems in the same way. Researchers value evidence and data verified over time using the most rigorous methods. Technology entrepreneurs identify pain points and move quickly to bring solutions to market, accepting failure and adaption as part of their processes.  These are different approaches, but there are places where the two must converge. One of those is around policy solutions: policies that govern health care are often informed by the data and evidence from researchers and implemented using technology. When the two sides are in dialogue with each other, we can get policy and implementation right. 

Getting the two sides together is not always easy, however, and it is one reason AcademyHealth has merged two of its most important events of the year, Health Datapalooza and the National Health Policy Conference, which I’m honored to co-chair this year with Niall Brennan, president and CEO of the Health Care Cost Institute.

I’ll give you a couple of examples of how this plays out in policy research. Some of my Vanderbilt colleagues recently published a piece in JAMA about delivering real-time prescription drug list prices through an electronic health record at the time a prescription is written. This is both a policy and tech question, driven by a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) final rule. The general public is frustrated by high drug prices, but there’s only limited research into if and how providing drug price information would actually reduce the out-of-pocket burden for patients — or even if the data is reliable enough to inform these kinds of decisions. In their JAMA piece, Stacie Dusetzina, Ph.D., Mark Frisse, M.D., M.S., M.B.A., and Jordan Everson, Ph.D., offered several questions for policymakers, technology companies, and researchers to think about collectively as this implementation moves forward.

Similarly, Niall wrote about sectors of this industry not existing in a vacuum. He put forward the idea that researchers need policymakers to listen to evidence to develop effective policy, and that technology producers need that same evidence to build solutions that can meet the demands of clinicians, patients and everyone else. I’d add that to fill the vacuum we need to do more than listen to each other. Especially as researchers, we need to ask the right questions, especially the hard ones. If we want tech leaders to help us fix health care, researchers need to assemble evidence to inform product development and tech colutions, even when the data might be imperfect. Put another way, if we’re not asking the right questions, even if we have to answer them imperfectly, our work is not relevant.

There are dozens of other examples where we have seen this; one is the Oncology Care Model, which Michael Millinson references in his Forbes article on getting tech, research and policy together to work together toward effective policy solutions. Another is the frustration that I know my former colleagues at the Congressional Budget Office feel when reading research that answers the wrong question perfectly, when an imperfect answer to a related question would have been much more useful. 

This is what I’m most looking forward to at the conference this year: seeing different groups having valuable conversations about how they can bring their sets of skills to bear, as different as they might be, to answer hard questions where the data might not be complete or fully understood. Can researchers become comfortable studying a program that produces new data, with the expectation that they analyze that data quickly? Can tech entrepreneurs become comfortable facing a demand for a complex, integrated solution that must co-exist within the structure of decades of policy precedents?

For some, it’s a question of adaptability. It can be difficult to shift longstanding research practices— like incorporating more qualitative assessments of care delivery or patient experience — at the same pace delivery models evolve in parallel with the technology landscape. The hard questions need to be asked and answered. And attending the National Health Policy Conference and Health Datapalooza is a perfect place to start.

Committee Member, Member, Presenter

Melinda B. Buntin, Ph.D.

Professor and Mike Curb Chair - Vanderbilt University

Melinda Buntin joined Vanderbilt School of Medicine in 2013 as professor and chair of the Department of Health... Read Bio

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