What if it were as easy to check a region's emergency room use and variation as it were to check, say, the weather? That's the goal of a new initiative in Camden.

Like many in health care right now, the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers has been trying to change what can be a fragmented health system, where a tiny percentage of patients generate lots of costs, often for preventable conditions.

But coalition director Jeffrey Brenner said in an interview that making real improvements is hard to do without solid, shared information.

"We're a big believer in the democratization of data," Brenner said. "And we can't change large broken systems if people don't understand how broken they are."

The information has been hard to obtain and break down at a community level, Brenner said, with groups instead leaning on aggregate statewide or national information -- information which could tell a different story.

The increased digitization of health data has created new possibilities, with instances of data sharing through health information exchanges.

So over the next few months, the coalition will be bringing in IT specialists from BlueLabs to build an open source website, featuring shared, understandable health information for Camden derived from anonymous individual health and medical claims data.

"We're picturing this to be a little like the weather report," said Brenner, a primary care doctor and recent MacArthur genius winner. "The public should know how much they're spending on health care, and how much necessary and unnecessary care is being delivered in Camden."

Imagine an online map, in real-time for example, of top reasons for visits to specific hospitals, or neighborhood trends in insurance sign ups.

The Knight Foundation recently awarded the coalition $450,000 for the project, as part of a health data news challenge which generated nearly 700 applications, according to Michael Maness, Vice President for Journalism at the Knight Foundation.

"Camden is a really good example of the kinds of things this health care data can do," Maness said, adding that even when current data is shared, it's not in formats that many people can use.

"With them becoming a third party, it enables hospitals to give them different pieces of data in a neutral territory, where they can combine those databases from the different hospitals and create a really great geographic mapping of the health issues Camden is working on," he said.

Brenner expects the site to be up and running in the next 6 months. Once completed, he plans to share the design "at low cost" with other communities.


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