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A prescription for drug data

By Christopher Gergen and Stephen Martin
Special to the Observer

Think about the last time you or members of your family needed a prescription drug. How did you go about getting it filled?

If you’re like us, you relied on what the doctor told you, took it to the local pharmacy, and quite possibly came away shocked by the co-pay amount (if you’re fortunate enough to have health insurance). There are so many variables at play, including the prescribed medicine, the choice of pharmacy and what your health plan covers, that it can feel impossible to make a more informed – and affordable -- decision about your medicines.

This has meaningful cost implications for your family, employers, and our nation.

According to Express Scripts Drug Trend Report, the estimated cost for sub-optimal prescription choices that provide no additional health benefit was $91 billion in 2011. This is where start-up Triangle-based company myDrugCosts, Inc., comes in. With the mission of “empowering patients to make better decisions when buying prescription drugs,” myDrugCosts helps patients and doctors confer on what drug choices make the most sense financially.

To help achieve this mission, myDrugCosts aggregates a lot of data, pulling information from the National Library of Medicine, the Food and Drug Administration, and local pharmacies. myDrugCosts has a free “public edition” available for anyone to check their prescription drug costs (www.mydrugcosts.com).

To match the available choices with your health plan coverage, myDrugCosts also offers a “premium edition” for purchase by employers. The payoff: a set of suggestions tailored to your medical needs and your pocketbook.

For some time now, a lot of data about drug costs has been available to the public. The problem is that it’s difficult to navigate and access. But with a tech-savvy team and a user-friendly design, myDrugCosts has created a mobile web application to make this information conveniently available via our smartphones.

In recognition of this innovative spirit, myDrugCosts was awarded first prize in the consumer app division at the 2012 Health Data Initiative, organized by the White House and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Originally launched in 2010, the Health Data Initiative is part of a broader push by the federal government to connect entrepreneurs with open data to help spark new solutions across a number of sectors, ultimately leading to improved public outcomes and economic output.

As U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park explains, “The Open Data Initiative is a program to … liberate government data … and to actively stimulate the development of new tools and services, and enhance existing tools and services, leveraging the data to help improve Americans’ lives in very tangible ways, and create jobs for the future.”

Pointing to the billions of dollars in private sector growth stimulated by publicly available GPS and weather data (think Google Maps and The Weather Channel), the White House has helped launch open-data efforts across multiple sectors, including health, education, energy, public safety, and international development. This initiative has spurred several “data-paloozas” across the country sparking hundreds of promising entrepreneurial ventures.

Earlier this month, the Triangle kicked off the country’s first regional data-palooza. With support from the White House, the event (hosted by HUB Raleigh that Christopher co-founded) brought together dozens of local entrepreneurs and companies like Blue Cross Blue Shield, Cisco, and SAS, to brainstorm how to use the vast amounts of publicly available data.

City and state data, helpfully consolidated on Triangle Wiki (www.trianglewiki.org/open_data_sources), includes city-specific information on crime data, building permit trends, real estate statistics, voter and elected official data, animal center data, and more. At the national level (easiest found at alpha.data.gov) is everything ranging from the energy use of your appliances to hospital quality data to education standards to natural hazards data.

The lists are endless and so are the possibilities for innovative uses of this data – evident in the brainstorming sessions that ensued Monday with local entrepreneurs. Among the ideas that emerged: a personalized health dashboard allowing you to track and compare your health to national/local data and plug into locally available resources that are publicly rated; a public parking app; a traffic app that guides you on new routes based on trend analysis; real-time data on how your local representatives are voting; a rating system for schools and child-care centers; and others.

These entrepreneurs now have ninety days to develop these solutions and submit them for judging. In September, the top ideas will be showcased publicly – hopefully accelerating their speed to market and sparking new ideas for data-driven innovation.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact and author of Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives. Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org.
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