The health care system in the United States is on the threshold of changing the course of the nation and what happens now “can impact the life of every American more than any piece of policy or legislation we have seen in the recent past,” Sylvia Mathews Burwell, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, said Wednesday.

Using data, we have “the opportunity to transform our health care system in unprecedented ways,” she said at the Health Datapalooza conference in Washington. “We have a vision of a better system and making that system a reality is one of the most important challenges of our time. The thing about making history is we don’t know it’s happening until we are in the middle of it and solutions don’t seem possible until they are.”

Although the U.S. is home to the best medical schools in the world, the system has been out of reach for far too many Americans for too long, Burwell said. “The way we delivered care didn’t make sense,” she explained, as providers are paid “piecemeal,” treating specific issues such as a cough, but failing to treat the underlying cause of illness.

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Also important is liberating the data, Burwell said. In her previous role at the Office of Management and Budget, Burwell worked to make data available and machine readable. “With better data sharing, more innovation is possible."

Key change

But according to Burwell something else is changing that is just as important – attitude. Consumers expect to access more data than ever before and are hungry for better ways to manage their own health.

“More important, businesses, providers and public payers are starting to work together more, understanding that everybody has a role to play if we are going to build a better system. We realize quality care can also be affordable. Working together, we will win.”

Turning to the crowd of nearly 2,000 at the keynote lunch address, she looked to them for help. “As we build this future, you are the bridge,” she said. “We need your programs, your apps, your big ideas. We need your help connecting providers and empowering patients.”

In return, Burwell pledged that HHS will continue to deliver data in any way possible while always keeping up with privacy protection. “[All we] ask of you is this. Talk to us. We want to know what information you are looking for and how to use it. We want to know what you need. We’ve come to a pivotal moment in the nation’s history. This is our moment. I intend to win and I look forward to doing it together.”

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