On March 27th, the Director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) Bob Valdez Ph.D., M.H.S.A met with the Friends of AHRQ to brief them on the Agency’s current and upcoming priorities. With the release of the President’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2024 comes an increased ask for funding for AHRQ’s important work. AHRQ works in tandem with the National Institutes of Health, Federal Drug Administration, and Centers for Disease Control to improve the health of our nation. Though unlike these other governmental agencies who are creating cures and treatments, AHRQ studies how these treatments are then best implemented.

The Friends of AHRQ are a group of over 450 organizations including clinician groups, patients, universities, health systems, health care professional societies, and many others spanning the health care ecosystem who advocate for funding and support for AHRQ. AcademyHealth’s Advocacy Team has worked closely with the Friends of AHRQ since their inception.

Dr. Valdez outlined three main objectives under which AHRQ is organizing their goals:

Improving the Performance of the Health Care System

This objective is broad in scope, with the goals of minimizing the notorious fragmentation of our health systems, aligning standards of care with appropriate payment structures, and lowering the nation’s health care inequities. Director Valdez detailed how these goals include improving care for patients with long COVID, chronic care, maternal health and improving overall care quality. Given the stark inequities brought to light during the COVID-19 pandemic, health services researchers have a responsibility to study and support our care systems recovery. He highlighted that very little progress has been made since the Unequal Treatment report from the Institute of Medicine came out 20 years ago, and current practices are still ineffective requiring moving health policy forward in new, innovative and aggressive ways.

Expanding Access to Affordable and High-Quality Care While Increasing the Resiliency of our Delivery Systems

This objective is not only about maximizing quality improvement in all health care settings, but also centering the customer experience. Director Valdez hopes to bring customer experience back to the forefront of health services research and reduce the lag in time between innovation discovery and implementation. By looking at care through the patient lens, we can implement more affordable and effective health care payment models.

Far too often, we have seen what impact poor disaster preparedness can have on small communities throughout the US.  Given the devastating impacts of the climate crisis, Director Valdez emphasized the importance of ensuring our delivery systems can support oncoming environmental disasters.

The President’s Budget

Director Valdez also answered questions about the President’s Budget request for AHRQ. The budget includes:

  • Nearly $20 million towards support long COVID research and patient centered care
  • $11 million for research on innovating primary care
  • $10 million in opioid and multiple substance abuse integrated treatment
  • $7.4 million towards improving maternal health care
  • $2 million towards the establishment of Telehealthcare Centers of Excellence

This funding has the potential to make huge impacts within our health care systems as AHRQ prioritizes supporting innovative solutions to the challenges facing the health care system. Throughout this request, Director Valdez highlighted the urgency of centering health equity in AHRQ’s current and future work. For a more detailed list of the budget request, click here.

Members of the Friends then had an opportunity to ask Director Valdez specific questions relevant to their interests, which included:

AHRQ’s data assets and AI

Director Valdez emphasized the need to innovate our data capturing process to rely less on low response rate surveys, and more on novel technological approaches. AHRQ’s wide breadth of highly popular data assets, including MEPS, HCUP, etc., will need updating in the near future as better data collection methods are considered. With interoperability of the electronic health record in constant conversation, it is essential for AHRQ to stay on top of best data practices. Director Valdez also noted, when asked about his thoughts on the newest innovations of artificial intelligence and algorithms in medicine, that we must be conscious of what biases we are building into our data and machines. It is essential for health services researchers to address this area of bias.

Diversifying the next generation of health services researchers

Director Valdez has a history of developing research training programs in his previous roles at University of New Mexico, University of California Los Angeles and other institutions, and brought his passion for the next generation to his role at AHRQ. This year, for example, AHRQ released an initiative to train underrepresented minority researchers in learning health systems. When asked what he envisions for the composition of training and education to be for future health services researchers, Director Valdez noted the field needs racial diversity as well as diversity of thought. This includes having more nurses, pharmacists, and non-clinical staff more involved in all aspects of health services research.

Action Alliance with HHS

One member asked about the Action Alliance, which is a partnership the Department of Health and Human Services began this year with 25 of the nation’s largest health care systems to examine the issue of patient and workforce safety. The Action Alliance is tasked with co-creating a learning community so that best practices can be shared across systems. Director Valdez said the Action Alliance hopes to launch in April, through which AHRQ and its sister agencies can then provide health systems with the evidence-based tools, such as the Comprehensive Unit-based Safety Program and the SHARE Approach, they have created geared towards improving patient safety. Health systems in turn can share what they have had success with in improving patient safety and protecting their workforce.

If you are interested in joining the free and voluntary Friends of AHRQ and having access to briefings on AHRQ’s priorities and research, please email advocacy@academyhealth.org to learn more.

Julie Ressalam, M.P.H.

Doctoral Student - University of Colorado School of Public Health

Julie Ressalam is AcademyHealth’s Spring 2023 Health Policy Fellow Read Bio

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