April 15, 2009

Newest X Prize Takes Aim At Health Improvements

The group who created the X Prize for space travel, DNA research and hyper-efficient autos has a new contest up their sleeve. 

On Tuesday they announced that they will be offering a $10 million dollar prize to the person or group who is able to transform the health of a small U.S. community.

The non-profit group will be accepting written proposals for the Healthcare X Prize, of which they will select five finalists to conduct a three-year trial run in real communities to determine whose plan is the most successful.

Contestants will be scored according to a "community health index" which evaluates effectiveness of the programs with indicators like improved physical fitness of individuals in the community, as well a reduced emergency room visits and lowered health care expenditures. 

"We need to show that the innovation works and then that the innovation is scalable.  It's going to be a public solution," said Angela Braly, president of health insurance company WellPoint Inc., a co-sponsor of the contest.

"We are looking for teams to help individuals and communities proactively improve their own health and [that] of their families," said Dr. Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation.  "Teams are actually going to have to design and implement a system across a community of 10,000 people that improves health by 50 percent during a three-year trial period," he added.

The contest allows each team 18 months to prepare and submit their plans before the actual test phase begins.  Upon completion of the project, all results will be assessed and audited by a panel of independent "third party" judges, say representatives from the organization.

Former congressman Newt Gingrich, who now leads the Center for Health Transformation, believes that project promises to bring a diversity of ideas to the healthcare problem.  "The Smithsonian would never have funded the Wright Brothers to invent the airplane," he added jokingly.

According to a study carried out by the non-profit NGO Commonwealth Fund, the U.S. is currently in last place among 19 industrial nations in terms of health outcomes, quality and efficiency.  In evaluations of preventable deaths from conditions like asthma and heart disease, the U.S. dropped four places from 15th to the bottom of the pack last year.

Recent surveys show that roughly 4 out of 5 Americans believe that the healthcare system in the U.S.  is in need of serious reforms.  The Obama administration has promised to put healthcare reform at the top of its priorities and has urged Congress to do the same.

A 2005 study at Harvard University found that more than half of all personal bankruptcy cases in the U.S. listed medical bills as their primary cause.  A disturbingly large percentage of those cases were middle-class citizens who had healthcare coverage.


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