Creating Sustainable Data Ecosystems For Public Health - An Interview With Taha Kass-Hout, MD


"An empowered consumer is an engaged one." - Taha Kass-Hout, MD, Former FDA 1st Chief Health Informatics Officer

Taha A. Kass-Hout, MD aims to empower patients through creating data ecosystems that are innovative and sustainable. In line with this goal, he pioneered the use of big data to improve population health as the first Chief Health Informatics Officer at the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Taha led the creation of openFDA, an open-source API platform and a supporting global community for FDA data, and precisionFDA, a cloud-based platform for collaborative discovery around next generation sequencing. Both initiatives were referenced in the 2015 White House updated Strategy for American Innovation. Additionally, precisionFDA was included in President Obama’s 2015 Precision Medicine Initiative and received the Best Practices Award in data mining and informatics, 2016 Bio-IT world. Taha is also the founder of Humanitarian Tracker, a non profit volunteer-based forum that connects and empowers citizens using innovation in technology, crowdsourcing, and machine learning to support humanitarian causes. Humanitarian Tracker is 2017 Classy Awards Finalist.

In this interview with Ebele Mogo, DrPH, Taha offers his take on the current state, best practices, and future of digital health as a tool for population health surveillance, promotion and management. This interview is part of Sickweather’s ongoing conversations on digital health innovation especially as it relates to public health surveillance.

Mogo: Collaborating with state and local public health agencies, you led the scale up of monitoring hospital emergency department visits during the H1N1 pandemic. What best practices can you share for replicating this success in rapid surveillance during outbreaks?

Kass-Hout: Primarily, focusing on offering a solution that is directly governed in partnership with state, local, and federal health agencies, health care providers, and national associations representing public health officials. The data sharing model and community-driven governance create a sustainable surveillance ecosystem to maintain situation awareness.

Mogo: From your experience spearheading innovations within the health system, how do you think that integration of high impact digital solutions into the health system can be improved?

Kass-Hout: The replacement of expensive technological services with a cloud-computing platform and a strong community of practice have resulted in substantial savings, allowing increased funding for health departments. For example, enhancing health department’s capacity to receive and use information from electronic health records for immunization services, laboratory test results for conditions of public health concern, or syndromic surveillance. From the consumer side, the rise of digital health tools and apps are engaging and empowering consumers to be key participants in maintaining good health, our readiness as communities come together, and for bi-directionally sharing of timely and tailored information.

Mogo: How do you see the role of Chief Health Informatics Officer of the FDA, which you were the first to assume, evolving in line with the rising relevance of data systems?

Kass-Hout: Personally, I see the role as an essential part of driving the agency forward and making sure it is able to challenge the status quo. FDA is an amazing organization, especially when it comes to empowering consumers by assuring the safety and efficacy of medical products in the marketplace, globally. This role is ever so essential in a big data and precision health era because we rely so much on the information we collect and analyze to have meaningful impact for consumer choices, identify adverse events early, eliminate harm by detecting counterfeits, and ensure the products are safe and effective based on solid evidence.

Mogo: Interoperability is a digital health buzzword and yet remains a consistent health systems challenge. What will it take to allow for an integrated rather than fragmented global health IT landscape in the United States and globally?

Kass-Hout: First, we really need to focus on building a different type of incentive for sharing meaningful data, and also make sure that future digital systems keep the consumers in the center. An empowered consumer is an engaged one. I have a track record of achieving interoperability by harmonizing various streams of information where we showed reliable signals early, even when stitching very messy streams of information. We’ve demonstrated this with disease surveillance for acute or chronic conditions, early detection and response to diseases and disasters, tracking medical products safety signals from adverse reactions or recalls, interacting directly with consumers via digital health means, evaluating reliability of genome sequence and variant call methods and instruments, building analytic and clinical evidence, or post market surveillance of medical products by mining various open source sites and databases for identifying counterfeited products globally, etc.

Mogo: Innovation often goes on at smaller scales such as within organizations, in the field, in practice without documentation. On the other hand, there is a significant time lag in the translation of research to practice and policy. Given your work in open science, how can generation of and collaboration around high quality public health evidence be fostered?

Kass-Hout: Dick Feynman said it best "What I cannot create, I do not understand", followed immediately by “Know how to solve every problem that has been solved”. The public health community is innovative, collaborative, and always open to meaningful change that doesn’t end in exhausting precious resources. Additionally, from the past 8 years I spent in the government, we brought methods, such as agile development and user-centered approaches that really made a huge impact on the global community, and engaged consumers in innovative and creative ways. Take a look at our story introducing openFDA to the world and how user centered design and open data can serve the public, including generating new evidence from open data.

Mogo: Finally, paint a picture for us of the evolution of digital health surveillance in the next 20 years and how you imagine that it will impact population health and health equity.

Kass-Hout: Here is literally a painting I did on one of the walls of the FDA Innovation Lab, that I created and launched with Walt Harris on May 11, 2015, depicting how I saw (and still see) a consumer-centered future when it comes to big data and digital health:

submitted by: Ebele Mogo, DrPH - Public Health Consultant

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