Technology drives advancements at Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality

Wednesday - 10/17/2012, 6:24am EDT

Oct. 17, 2012 - Agency of the Month

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By Sean McCalley
Federal News Radio

Delivering the best health care advice is a democratic endeavor at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

It's mission — through collaboration with other entities, build a depository of health information that taxpayers and consumers can trust.

"We recognize that, while many people want better information about how to inform decisions, they're also a little bit nervous," said Carolyn Clancy, director of AHRQ, referring to the agency's Effective Health Care Program. "They want to know the information is reliable... that we aren't just making up recommendations."

The program is a one-stop shop for health care consumers, researchers and policy makers to find up-to-date information on treatment options and patient studies. Comparing the expertise of the agency's own researchers with outside advisors allows AHRQ to judge what's most valuable to its audience. It's a process that's serving the agency well.

"It has been incredibly informative," Clancy said on Federal News Radio's Agency of the Month show. "And we've been very impressed [with] how many patient groups, in particular, are very interested in this kind of work."

The role of technology in health care research

Cheaper computing and technology advances were central to the creation of the agency in 1999. Members of Congress realized health care costs varied widely across the country but practice and medical outcomes were fairly consistent. So an agency to collect the data and provide access to a national audience was necessary for cutting costs and improving care.

Since the agency was born of technology, AHRQ continues to rely on it heavily today.

Read Clancy's full bio.

"Cheaper computing power made it possible for many people to actually do these kinds of analyses with extremely large datasets; now you could probably do them on a smartphone," said Clancy. "The use of web-based applications and use of smarter application of technology has been both a focus of our work as well as an important tool for doing the work more effectively."

Whether in its annual reports to Congress, targeted requests for information or public feedback on reports, AHRQ is constantly looking to collaborate. Having an easier-to-manage, intuitive technology platform through web applications and public databases allows AHRQ to have a constructive relationship with other agencies in the Department of Health and Human Services — especially the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

"CMS has to make many decisions on what Medicare will cover," said Clancy. "It might include devices for home monitoring, coverage for new types of procedures ... CMS will turn to us to give them the best advice possible when they are confronted with some of these decisions."

However, sometimes the best advice AHRQ can offer is that there isn't any research to justify adding new coverage or spending more resources. It's a screening system that helps HHS cut costs for its entire budget. This makes the challenge for AHRQ more centered on asking the right questions to guide its own research.

"You can't say, 'Is an insulin pump good or not?'" said Clancy. "The real question is, 'Are insulin pumps more effective at managing the blood sugar of people with diabetes and minimizing the risk that their blood sugar will go too low and they'll have adverse effects.'"

Those are the types of questions driving the next stage of research for the agency.