- A secretive project at the US Department of Health and Human Services is working with technology companies to collect and analyze data related to the novel coronavirus.
- Dubbed “HHS Protect,” the effort tracks information from around the country about coronavirus case numbers, hospital capacity, and even supply chain issues.
- HHS uses Palantir Technologies, a data firm cofounded by Peter Thiel, to distill that information for the White House coronavirus task force.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
A secretive project at the US Department of Health and Human Services is working with technology companies to collect and analyze data related to the novel coronavirus.
Dubbed “HHS Protect,” the effort includes roughly 2.5 billion pieces of data from healthcare providers, government officials, and labs around the country about coronavirus case numbers, hospital capacity, and even supply chain issues.
The goal is learn about the progression of outbreaks and, with the help of data-analysis firm Palantir Technologies, distill that information for the White House coronavirus task force and other officials, a spokesperson for HHS told Business Insider in a statement.
But a few issues have plagued Protect from the onset. It took until April 10 to get up and running, as regulators worked to compile messy reports from hospitals that lacked both guidance on how to format them and sometimes digital infrastructures to collect the information in the first place, according to administrators and consultants interviewed by Business Insider.
Palantir’s role in the project is intimate, as it was contracted to help develop Protect, the Daily Beast reported.
Palantir did not respond to a request for comment on the project.
Protect is planning to work with medical record companies
The federal government isn’t collecting personal information currently via Protect, but plans to. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will share patient data with the HHS platform, and efforts are underway to collect it from private companies as well, a spokesperson told Business Insider.
HHS said it’s currently working on more than 15 data use agreements with private firms that could cover a range of issues, including patient information and security protocols, allowing officials to collect more data.
HHS said Protect was built to meet security standards that allow it to collect and share personal information, including health data.
HHS declined to name all the companies involved in Protect or explain their individual roles. But the spokesperson said that the list of contributors — including local governments, academic institutions, and the private sector — is broad.
“Private sector companies are partnering with HHS and providing data on a voluntary basis to help us get a better understanding of the common operating picture associated with multiple areas of interests related to the coronavirus pandemic,” HHS said.
Medical records companies Cerner, Meditech, CPSI, and Allscripts did not respond to a request for comment about whether they were providing data to the project.
Epic Systems said it’s been in conversations with the federal government about how it might support coronavirus efforts, but had no further comment on Protect.
The companies all already share information with government agencies.
Palantir’s work behind the scenes
Run by HHS’ Office of the Chief Information Officer, the project is trying to anticipate where the virus is heading, and keep government officials informed, broadly speaking.
It’s not clear which Palantir products HHS is using to comb through ventilator, bed, ICU utilization and the rest of the information stored there — but the partnership is ongoing, HHS told Business Insider.
They’re working together to analyze and model more than 200 data sets from roughly 5,700 hospitals and report directly to White House officials, governors, and local leaders, according to HHS.
For instance, Palantir engineers along with the US Digital Service compile nightly reports for Dr. Deborah Birx, a key member of Trump’s coronavirus task force, according to HHS and the Daily Beast.
Palantir was started in 2003 by founders including Thiel and CEO Alex Karp. The company specializes in analyzing complicated sets of data, as Business Insider’s Rosalie Chan reported.
Thiel is a venture capitalist and Trump supporter who spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Karp has described himself as a socialist.
It’s not the first government contract awarded to Palantir during the Trump era. Earlier this year, Palantir received two contracts worth $17.3 million and $800 million for unrelated data work, as reported by the Daily Beast and Bloomberg News, respectively.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment about the effort.
The backdrop is a messy data ecosystem
HHS leans on tech companies for help with data because health information often arrives in a variety of spreadsheets, PDFs, emails, and electronic files that are difficult to interpret, according to Dr. Steve Kearney, a medical director at SAS Institute. He declined to say whether SAS was involved with Protect specifically, but said the software company is helping HHS officials with a variety of coronavirus-related data projects.
“There’s a lot of time and money and resources that are put into the data and the data management before we ever get to analytics and actually doing something with it,” he said in an interview, referring to SAS’ work with the federal government and providers.
Hospitals typically record patient data into electronic records and communicate it with data messages and coded terminologies, called “standards,” to other parties. But no such languages exist for many of the things regulators are asking about now, according to Dr. Stan Huff, chief medical informatics officer at Intermountain Healthcare.
“There is no standard right now, for instance, for us to share with people the number of beds that we have available, the number of respirators we have available, what the distribution is of those beds, and whether they’re in Salt Lake or whether they’re in Fillmore, which is a small town in the middle of Utah,” Huff said in an interview.
For regulators on the receiving end, the lack of standards can make hospital reports just as varied as the groups that send them. For providers, it caused confusion at the start of the pandemic as to how to package the data, not to mention collect it, according to Huff.
HHS told Business Insider it was taking steps to remove some of the reporting burden on the health system by creating multiple avenues for data submission to Protect, and had no further comment on the lack of standardization.
In March, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) released rules meant to support the exchange of electronic health information. But the deadline for compliance was recently extended due to coronavirus outbreaks.
“Had our rule been in place a couple years ago, a lot of this stuff could be usable,” the spokesperson said in an interview.
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