As rapper Sean “P. Diddy” Combs once said, “It’s all about the Benjamins.”

In the case of health IT, the federal government hopes application developers are listening, as the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) has jumped on the prize bandwagon for app and software creation.

Nearly $5 million was awarded to program and management advisement firms Capitol Consulting Corp. (CCC) and Health 2.0 LLC by the ONC earlier this month as a part of the Investing in Innovations (i2) Initiative, a program focused on providing competitions and prizes to stimulate the development of health IT projects.

The i2 Initiative is designed to provide incentives to accelerate the creation of applications and tools that solve challenges throughout the health IT industry. The program was made possible by the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The act, signed by President Barack Obama in January, is aimed at increasing the United States’ competitiveness in the areas of science, technology and education by providing $45 billion to various programs during the next three years.

“I think the beauty of the program is that it brings in developers, innovators and solution providers in a nontraditional way, beyond the contracts and grants mechanisms that currently exist,” said Wil Yu, special assistant of innovations and research for the ONC. “The federal government has engaged in prizes and challenges in a limited basis in the past ... and from the case studies that I’ve seen, they can be a very valuable way of obtaining solutions and engaging the public.”

According to Yu, for each competition, any monetary award would come out of the $5 million allotted to the CCC and Health 2.0. He said other prizes could theoretically include nonmonetary intangible awards such as recognition for having a best solution to a networking luncheon with Farzad Mostashari, the national coordinator for health IT.

Although not set in stone, ideas for competition topics discussed between the ONC, CCC and Health 2.0 include:

  • applications that allow an individual to securely and effectively share health information with members of his or her social network;

     

  • applications that generate results for patients, caregivers, and/or clinicians by providing them with access to rigorous and relevant information that can support real needs and immediate decisions;

     

  • applications that allow individuals to connect during natural disasters and other periods of emergency; and

     

  • tools that facilitate the exchange of health information while allowing individuals to customize the privacy allowances for their personal health records.

Yu explained that while Health 2.0 and the CCC are tasked with developing the technical infrastructure for the program, federal committees are being put together to discuss potential contests. The prize-competition structure is one Yu felt would reverberate throughout the federal government for the next few years.

“While we’ll still use existing methods for encouraging innovation, I think that we want to be as inclusive as possible of new techniques and new methodologies,” Yu said. “So the ability to put out a challenge to the external world is not unique to health IT, but because it is a rapidly developing field and one that requires substantial community building, we think it has a great deal of promise.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1998, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.