What Feds' Push To Share Health Data Means For Patients

Charles Ornstein | NPR | May 9, 2016

Two years ago, when the federal government first released data on how much Medicare paid physicians, the media coverage was widespread. Doctors who earned significant sums were dubbed "Medicare millionaires" and journalists highlighted unusual patterns in how some doctors bill for services. When Medicare released its third round of data last Thursday, the coverage was practically nonexistent. In some ways, that's because data releases from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have become almost routine. ProPublica has used CMS data to build our Treatment Tracker, another tool called Prescriber Checkup and a third called Dollars for Docs, among others.

On Monday and Tuesday, hundreds of people will gather in Washington, D.C., for Health Datapalooza, a conference devoted to the uses of health data. One of its main planners is Niall Brennan, chief data officer at CMS. (I am on the steering committee for the event.) I spoke to Brennan last week about the agency's efforts to open up its data and what it means for the public. The interview has been edited for length.

CMS seems to have released a lot of data lately. Can you give us a rundown of what the agency has released?

One of the reasons for our success is that we actually started with relatively small and modest data releases — things like releasing data at the regional level on differences in Medicare spending among states and counties. And then we gradually built up to releasing more detailed information on discharges at hospitals; how physicians practice medicine in the Medicare program; how they prescribe drugs in the Medicare program; how they prescribe durable medical equipment such as wheelchairs...