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Maryland Seeks Health IT Ideas in New Contest

The Maryland Health Data Innovation Contest challenges anyone in the world to develop impactful public health intervention tools.

With ever-shrinking budgets and the need for better access to health care, the state of Maryland and its health-care counterparts are stepping up their game by hosting an innovation contest for public health IT.

Launching today is the Maryland Health Data Innovation Contest, a collaborative effort among the state, its Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH), the state health information exchange and the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation. The contest will provide participants from around the world with  access to more than 16 existing health-related databases in an effort to spark ideas on using IT to address issues such as obesity, smoking rates and heart health.

The nice thing about this particular IT contest is that entrants don't necessarily have to write any code, says Maryland's Chief Innovation Officer Bryan Sivak. "The more practical and implementable the idea is, I think the better the chances will be of it winning the competition," Sivak says, "but we really wanted to make sure that we weren't limiting the potential by shrinking the audience to just people who could code."

Sivak credits the Chesapeake Regional Information System for Our Patients (CRISP), the state's health information exchange, for the idea. CRISP Program Director Scott Afzal sees it as an opportunity to potentially capture some innovative ideas from a broader community.

"What could you do with access to data from a health information exchange and in real time?" Afzal says. "What could you do if you had access to, for example, absences from schools? You could put that data together to show, geographically, that you are seeing a higher absence rate, and that correlates to some particular health situation. You could potentially develop a pretty impactful public health intervention."

Applicants will be asked to submit ideas to address a public health problem or that contribute to the Million Hearts initiative, a national program aimed at preventing 1 million heart attacks and strokes over the next five years. For the time being, applicants are encouraged to set aside privacy and security concerns.

Ideas will be evaluated through the crowdsourcing platform Spigit, and people can vote until April 16. Ideas with the most votes will then be reviewed by a panel of public health officials, who will make a final recommendation to DHMH Secretary Joshua Sharfstein. Each idea will be rated based on the significance of the health problem selected, creativity of the proposed solution, practicality of implementation, and overall impact that the innovative idea will have on Maryland residents.

The winning ideas will receive cash awards, Afzal says. A $5,000 grant from the Abell Foundation will fund four awards: Two $2,000 awards going to the winners from Spigit and from the expert panel, and two $500 honorable mention awards.

Neither the state nor CRISP are guaranteeing implementation of any of the ideas, though Sivak says he can easily see the entrepreneur community jumping on a good idea for implementation. "Having said that, if an idea comes through which makes a lot of sense for the state or CRISP to implement, there's a good chance that we'll figure out how to do that as well."

For DHMH's Sharfstein, the way this contest is bringing together the IT side with the public health side is important. "I think there are a lot of nuts and bolts in getting health IT moving, but we're doing this for a reason," he says. "There's so much potential for health benefits down the road that this is an opportunity to air out some of the really great ideas for what can be done."

Tina Trenkner is the Deputy Editor for She edits the Technology and Health newsletters.
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