In pursuit of their primary mission, innovators at Federal agencies must seek new ways to leverage technology. And in a post-COVID world, public health IT experts are assessing how technology can augment human workers when healthcare workers are in short supply.

On day one of AFCEA’s 15th Annual Health IT Summit on Jan. 17, emerging technology panelists from various agencies under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) pointed to partnerships with industry and academia as the key to utilizing new tools – like AI and machine learning – to solve public health issues.

“Two is better than one. We have been able to do a lot of things with the partnerships that we have,” Quinn Ton, director of Advanced Services Delivery and Automation at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), said.

“Industry engagement is important to us because we need to know what’s going on out there,” she said.

Ton’s office was stood up in September 2021, and her team has since homed in on “transforming FDA technology into the new century” so the agency can protect public health more efficiently.

In the years to come, Ton said her team will be focused on the robotic automation process and leveraging the internet of things (IoT) at the FDA to forward their mission.

Sanja Basaric, the AI program lead at HHS, echoed Ton’s idea that industry partnerships are critical for her young office to understand the landscape of emerging technology outside of the public-sector world.

“Industry has been really valuable,” she said. “They’re the ones that are embedded across the government and their perspective has been really useful in helping us understand what’s out there.”

“Our industry partners are absolutely key in providing those core foundations for [good AI],” Basaric added.

The AI expert emphasized that engaging industry is one of the best parts about her job. Her office’s mission is to scale and accelerate the use of AI across the entirety of HHS, so she prides herself in being a “matchmaker” in AI for HHS agencies and industry partners.

“I am confident that HHS is going to continue leading the charge in trustworthy AI deployments,” she said.

Keith Bocian, the AI Lead at HHS’ Office of the Inspector General (OIG), told the crowd that he is always looking for opportunities to bridge the divide between industry and government.

When asked how the public health sector plans to use emerging tech to benefit those with disabilities, Bocian mentioned that they will need to leverage industry’s expertise.

“This is one of the areas I think that we need your help. We want to engage with you to understand where you’ve seen some success,” he said.

Alastair Thomson, Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), is actively looking for partnerships with industry and academia. He said that great partnerships are the key to enabling innovation.

“To do that requires bringing together academia, government, and industry,” the CIO said, adding, “That’s a model that I think we can see be replicated again and again.”

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Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.