Silicon Flatirons Formalizes Focus on Health Data

Director hopes initiative will be a place to ‘think critically’ on national health network

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed health care issues to the forefront of many peoples’ minds. There have been a range of technology issues that have come up over the last six weeks, and many conversations involve health, said Craig Konnoth, director of the Health Data and Technology Initiative at the University of Colorado’s Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology and Entrepreneurship. Tracking people’s health and their interactions with people who might be infected with COVID-19 raises concerns regarding privacy and security, HIPAA compliance and waivers, electronic health records, vaccination and more.

And while the new initiative, which launched this year, is focused on a major public concern, there is overlap between it and other Silicon Flatirons programs. “While many of these conversations center around health, it really involves the expertise of other initiatives,” Konnoth said. “There’s just a bunch of issues that have come up that could really engage the expertise of Silicon Flatirons more broadly.”

Silicon Flatirons executive director Amie Stepanovich said the center was in the early stages of putting discussions together, hopefully with something ready for the public in the next few weeks “making sure we are contributing to the conversations that are happening now, not reiterating.”

Konnoth said the program launched with the goal of filling a national niche. “When I think about the large law and health centers around the country, I can’t really think of centers that are very much focused on data and technology regulation,” Konnoth said. “There are some, but not with the level or depth that we could bring to it.”

The initiative officially started this year, but Silicon Flatirons has worked on a range of health law data and technology issues in the past with white papers and an annual conference going back several years.

Phil Weiser, Colorado attorney general and founder of Silicon Flatirons, previously hosted data and technology conferences, according to Konnoth. He would work with the health law community around the state about tech and data issues that were interesting to them. Before talks took place on creating the health initiatives, the center was involved in conversations across the state and had people looking to the center for leadership, Konnoth said.

Konnoth said part of his reason for joining Silicon Flatirons was to look at the area in a more “official sustained capacity.” Since Stepanovich became executive director of Silicon Flatirons last year, there has been room to grow and expand, which has itself allowed Flatirons to engage in many different topics.

“I think the Health Data and Technology Initiative is one of the most important of these new endeavors,” Konnoth said.

“With health data, we really felt like this was an increasingly important area, and something we have the expertise in Colorado. We have a place where we could provide a leadership role,” Stepanovich said.

There was really no question on whether it was worth investing in health data, she added. From the first time the health initiative was announced publicly, she said she was approached by many people asking how they could get involved. Stepanovich said the center wants to provide support for each of its initiatives “health data among them, to make sure there’s room to explore the issues, and that the exploration is practical and accessible.”

Once the center decides to invest in an area, there is a three-prong mission, she said.

 Those include moving the debates forward in areas of tech law and policy, supporting entrepreneurship and helping student development and develop the next generation of lawyers and policy leaders. “And our initiatives work across those three areas.”

Konnoth appreciated that Stepanovich shares his values of bringing in diverse opinions and backgrounds both demographically and characteristically. 

Looking to the future, Konnoth said there is a broad range of possibilities for the initiative. He added he wanted to make the conference each year thematic, focusing on specific issues to help develop a deeper understanding. This year’s conference focused on the 21st Century Cures Act, which he said was the most important issue involving health data regulation during the current pandemic.

Future conferences might focus on topics such as nutrition, privacy and to what lengths electronic health data can reach into people’s lives, Konnoth said. For example, many medical professionals have said they need travel data in electronic health records, which could have helped with the current coronavirus, he added.

The center’s ability to send students around the country allows for the development of leaders in the field, Konnoth said. In the future, Konnoth hopes the center will become a place “to think critically on some of these broad issues that face the nation as we build a national health network.”

In addition, many of the conversations about Health and Human Services have called for industry to take the lead, Konnoth said. The only problem with that is you could wind up with only an industry perspective, and patients and providers can be left in the cold. He said he thinks there is a need for a place which can have those conversations and provide an “even playing field” to develop mutual understanding.

“And I think the Health Data and Technology Initiative could be such a place,” Konnoth said.

— Avery Martinez

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