HHS CTO Fox: Healthcare innovation must focus on the patient

New HHS CTO Susannah Fox is more strategist, entrepreneur and even cheerleader than someone managing hardware installation.

The title of chief technology officer means different things in different organizations. At the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, new CTO Susannah Fox is more strategist, entrepreneur and even cheerleader than someone managing hardware installation at HHS headquarters in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol.

“My role is to throw a spotlight on the pockets of innovation that are already happening at HHS,” Fox said Wednesday during the closing keynote session at MedCity ENGAGE in Bethesda, Md. It’s also to create a vision for HHS to improve its technology strategy. “That’s why, when I started looking at the opportunity, I couldn’t resist,” Fox said.

Fox had been entrepreneur-in-residence at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for nearly nine months before taking the HHS job in late May. Before that, she spent 14 as director of health and technology at the Pew Research Center, where she produced numerous reports that got to the heart of consumer health issues by crunching a lot of data.

“When they chose me as the CTO of HHS, they chose someone who has a vision with the patient at the center,” Fox said. “For me, the most important ‘e’ word for e-patients is engagement,” she added, underscoring why MedCity invited her to speak at ENGAGE.

Fox, the de facto head of the HHS Idea Lab, noted that both healthcare and healthcare innovation are moving away from the hospital and clinic. “What I don’t think we acknowledge is how much innovation is happening in the home,” she said.

Fox wants to “boost the signal” of what she called “home health hacks.” She told the story of how one woman she encountered while at Pew created a makeshift system to prevent the her frail husband from falling by loading up the pockets of a fisherman’s vest with necessities to get him through the day to minimize the number of times he had to get up, in the name of preventing falls.

In this spirit, IdeaLab wants to “hack red tape,” or reduce the burden of healthcare processes, such as one to cut the number of handwritten labels needed for organ procurement, Fox said. For example, a paper-based system for organ donation required 30-70 labels, mostly handwritten. “Sometimes it would be a Post-It, and the Post-It would fall off,” Fox said, incredulously.

That dilemma led to the Health Resources and Services Administration within HHS creating an automated labeling system for the nation’s Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

Fox did that she would like government procurement processes to move faster. “We need to fail faster and fail forward to innovate like a private company does,” she responded to an audience question.

Fox also talked up open data, one of her pet projects even before she took the government job. She said that HHS to date has “liberated” 1,800 data sets and HHS has 130 innovation competitions in the last four years.

“We must ask how we can do better at HHS to build value for the public,” Fox said. “True engagement will only come when we create a learning [health] system that creates knowledge.”