05/29/2012 03:20 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2012

Making Health Data Do Something!

Making sense out of all the health data out there is daunting -- even for the seasoned health data junkie. A new app for the iPad called Health Indicators now brings consumers one step closer to seeing health data about where they live -- the geomedicine approach I have been writing about since 2009.

The purpose of the app, as I understand from the developers on the labs team at Critigen, was to create a free app that would show people what they can do with some of the free governmental health data and modern mapping visualization software. The governmental health data is being pushed out by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) in what is called the "health data liberation" by Todd Park, former CTO of DHHS but now CTO of the entire U.S. government. Todd will be hosting, along with the DHHS, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and other private sector organizations, the third annual Health Datapalooza in Washington, D.C. June 5-6, 2012 -- the largest gathering of health app innovators leveraging what has been collected and made available, pretty much for free, by the U.S. government in the name of a healthier nation. Easier access to some of this data is vital in reforming various parts of the U.S. health care system -- and not a moment too soon.

To me, this is a very useful app because it takes a lot of complex health data and allows me to explore and compare what is around me while learning a little more about what the data actually means and how it compares to neighboring counties, states, and census regions. If I were a federal employee working at DHHS, I would love the ability to see my data represented at the various federal regions -- the geography by which the U.S. government understands health needs and manages people and money.

The best way to really grasp what this app is all about is to download the app from the iTunes App store and give it a drive. Data is organized in categories that try to mimic real life -- like "Good Start" (how well we care for our babies), "Staying Healthy" (how well we are prepared to follow medical advice), "Managing Disease" (how well do we manage potential fatal conditions), "Getting Help" (how easy is it to get basic health care services), and "Paying for Care" (how well do we make health care affordable) -- categories that make sense to consumers and yet incorporate all the documentation that a health professional would like to see.

My sense is that we will begin to see many more apps like this as more software developers get familiar with the underlying technologies, like GIS, and the demand for consumer facing apps in health gain popularity. One of the serendipities that come with such elegant and simple apps is the ability to expose data problems upfront, like incomplete data coverage -- knowing which places (like counties) actually did not collect or report data is just also important to understanding what this data actually means.

For a society moving to smartphones and digital tablets at record-breaking speed, having health data assembled and displayed in apps like this stands a much greater chance of actually doing something positive for people's health -- maybe even mine!

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