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RWJF offers $120,000 for best hospital price comparison tools


By Joseph Conn
Posted: June 6, 2013 - 2:30 pm ET
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A major foundation wants software developers to invent tools to help consumers and others better understand Medicare data comparing hospital prices.

To achieve that, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is sponsoring a developers' competition to further disseminate cost data on common hospital procedures. Contestants will vie for $120,000 in prize money. The deadline for submissions is Aug. 25. Winners will be announced on Dec. 9 at the mHealth Summit. The contest was announced this week at Health Datapalooza in Washington D.C., a government-launched two-day conference to promote the use of federal data for healthcare improvement.

According to the RWJF, its contest comes in direct response to a CMS data dump last month in which it publicly released charge and reimbursement data for the 100 most common diagnostic related groups from 3,000 hospitals, according to the Princeton, N.J.-based not-for-profit organization. The foundation wants developers to come up with a better way to visually present hospital charge data as well as create some consumer-oriented applications to better display it, to promote price transparency.

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“The challenge asks technology developers to transform these data into intuitive, actionable tools,” Katherine Hempstead, senior program officer at RWJF, said in a news release. “We hope this will spark discussion and innovation that will help further progress toward increased price transparency in healthcare.”

This is the latest effort to meld the spirit of competition with cold, hard cash, and produce innovative healthcare software applications for the public good. The foundation has sponsored five developer contests so far, said Dr. Michael Painter, an RWJF senior program officer.

The annual Health Datapalooza events have hosted contest launches and awards announcements of multiple developer challenges. Those included several this year, such as the $500,000 interim award in the $3 million Heritage Health Prize for data analytics to identify patients at high risk of re-hospitalization, and the $100,00 Heritage Open mHealth Challenge that went to the developer of Mood Rhythym, a mobile application for patients with bi-polar disorder.

Other recent developers' contests have been sponsored by both government agencies and private sector organizations to spark innovation in an array of areas, including patient portals, measuring healthcare quality expanding the use of the federally developed Blue Button standard of medical record copying and sharing, and video educational programming.

Dr. Richard Merkin, president and CEO of Heritage Provider Network, an independent practice association based in Marina Del Rey, Calif., the sponsor of this year's Heritage prizes, said contests are a good way to draw fresh eyes to solving a specific problem. Merkin recalled that Charles Lindbergh, who in 1927 at age 25 became the first pilot to fly nonstop from New York to Paris, was responding to a $25,000 challenge.

Merkin said the Heritage contests spawned cooperation among seven developers from the U.S., Europe and Australia.

“Collaboration in modern corporate America is a new phenomenon,” Merkin said. “Most don't want to give any information to a competitor. These people (the prize winners) looked at the world a little differently. It just goes to show you, no matter how many smart people work for you, even more smarter people work for someone else.”

Follow Joseph Conn on Twitter: @MHJConn


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