U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Using Open Innovation to Fight the Opioid Epidemic

The U.S. government has turned to crowdsourcing to help solve some of the most pressing public health issues.

Crowdsourcing is the government’s way of saying, “We don’t have all the answers.” [1]

In October 2017, President Trump officially declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. In 2016 alone, 11 million Americans abused prescription painkillers, and over 64,000 people died of drug overdoses, more than four times the number of overdose deaths in 1999. [2] A McKinsey report suggested that most opioid misuse remains undiagnosed and that the crisis will likely worsen in the next few years. [3]

Less than two months later, in December 2017, 300 data scientists, coders, and public health experts from around the country convened in Washington, DC to participate in a 24-hour code-a-thon hosted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and focused on fighting the opioid epidemic.

Why Open Innovation?

To meet its mission of promoting the health, safety, and general wellbeing of all Americans, HHS is constantly trying to solve the healthcare industry’s biggest challenges. The urgency and magnitude of the opioid crisis only exacerbate the need for innovative solutions. Open innovation allows HHS to leverage the varied knowledge, skills, and experiences of individuals within the government, industry, and academia. Together, challenge participants can generate a larger volume and more diverse set of ideas than would be possible if HHS worked solely within the confines of the department.

During the 24-hour opioid challenge, each of the 50 participating teams worked to create novel, data-driven solutions, thereby priming the product development funnel with potential solutions related to the prevention, treatment, and use of opioids. Winners of the $10,000 prizes included the Origami Innovations team from the student-led incubator at Yale University and The Opioid Prescriber Awareness Tool (OPAT) team, which drew on a member’s experience as a pilot to create a tool that visualizes physicians’ opioid prescription patterns. [4]

These code-a-thons and innovation challenges allow the government to take a more agile approach to product development. Rather than wait until ideas are fully formed and products developed, HHS can get a sense of high-potential ideas early in the development process and work with teams to adapt their projects to meet the needs of the end-user, whether that be patients and their families, emergency medical technicians, physicians, or local governments. HHS also has the opportunity to provide teams with funding and resources that can help to turn their ideas into viable products.

Promoting Innovation

Data silos and a lack of access to quality data can hinder innovation and limit the benefits of crowdsourcing. For its opioid code-a-thon, HHS overcame this challenge by releasing over 70 data sets from both the public and private sectors, including data from HHS and other federal agencies, such as the Departments of Labor, Commerce, Transportation, and Education, as well as data from several state and local governments. [5] In addition, HHS published a data brief that highlighted the types of data available and how the data could be linked to support research and development efforts. [6] Bruce Greenstein, the HHS Chief Technology Officer noted the significance of this action by stating, “releasing this data is historic and, believe me, putting it together and opening data from within government is quite a challenge in itself.” [7]

To encourage other federal agencies and organizations to hold similar code-a-thons, HHS published a toolkit and the HHS Competes Playbook. [8][9] These tools share best practices and offer guidance on how to plan and execute innovation challenges. Building upon lessons learned from last year’s opioid code-a-thon, the University of California Institute for Prediction Technology hosted a hack-a-thon to generate solutions to the opioid crisis with a special emphasis on California. The challenge also served as part of a research study to understand if and how open innovation challenges can be used in response to public health crises. [10]

What’s next?

Going forward, HHS should consider coordinating with other federal agencies and continue developing partnerships with companies to support the later stages of the product development process. These open innovation challenges generate lots of ideas, but by partnering with other agencies and private sector organizations, HHS can ensure that high-quality ideas move through the product development process – from product definition to testing and launch readiness – in a safe and timely manner.


  • Does the government have to take the lead on holding open innovation challenges aimed at addressing social issues? Are there incentives and motivations that could encourage the private sector to tackle social issues?
  • Generating ideas is an important step, but just because a product is built, does not mean it will be adopted. Are there other ways for HHS to ensure that ideas turn into feasible products and that they’re adopted by the appropriate end users?

(word count: 777)

  1. GSA Blog Team, “Crowdsourcing Takes on a National Public Health Emergency,” GSABlog, General Services Administration, November 14, 2017, https://www.gsa.gov/blog/2017/11/14/crowdsourcing-takes-on-a-national-public-health-emergency/, accessed November 2018.
  2. Donald Trump, “Remarks by President Trump on Combatting Drug Demand and the Opioid Crisis,” speech given in the East Room, White House, Washington, DC, October 26, 2017.
  3. Sarun Charumilind, MD, et al., “Why we need bolder action to combat the opioid epidemic,” McKinsey & Company, September 2018, https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/healthcare-systems-and-services/our-insights/why-we-need-bolder-action-to-combat-the-opioid-epidemic, accessed November 2018.
  4. “HHS announces the winners of the HHS Opioid Code-a-Thon,” December 8, 2017, press release, on HHS website, https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2017/12/08/hhs-announces-winners-hhs-opioid-code-thon.html, accessed November 2018.
  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “HHS Opioid Code-a-Thon,” https://www.hhs.gov/challenges/code-a-thon/index.html, accessed November 2018.
  6. Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, “Research to Address the Opioid Crisis: Approaches to Data Linkage” (PDF File), downloaded from the HHS website, https://aspe.hhs.gov/system/files/pdf/258541/OpioidDataLinkage.pdf, accessed November 2018.
  7. Dave Muoio, “HHS announces code-a-thon to address national opioid emergency,” mobihealthnews, October 26, 2017, https://www.mobihealthnews.com/content/hhs-announces-code-thon-address-national-opioid-emergency, accessed November 2018.
  8. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “The HHS Competes Playbook, https://www.hhs.gov/idealab/competes/playbook/, accessed November 2018.
  9. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Toolkit,” https://www.hhs.gov/idealab/competes/toolkit/, accessed November 2018.
  10. The University of California Institute for Prediction Technology, “The Opioid Hack-A-Thon 2018,” https://www.theopioidhackathon.com/, accessed November 2018.

Image. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Connecting Data to Save Lives,” https://www.hhs.gov/blog/2017/11/30/connecting-data-to-save-lives.html, accessed November 2018.


3D Printing & The Future of Army Resupply in Remote Areas


Tesla: Driving Into the AI Future?

Student comments on U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Using Open Innovation to Fight the Opioid Epidemic

  1. This essay was extremely informative and insightful, eloquently dictating how a public health emergency can benefit from a megatrend and changes in technology. The section I found particularly engaging relates to the 24-hour opioid challenge where one team created a tool that “visualizes physicians’ opioid prescription patterns.” To further support the argument about how open innovation has a positive impact on the opioid innovation, the author should analyze how open innovation will play a role in the future of healthcare (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2351978915002152). In this article, it is evident that technology and innovative strategies will continue to have a strong role in solving healthcare challenges. Moreover, I am still curious as to how HHS can learn from the opioid challenge and use similar practices for future public health crises. Overall, this essay critically evaluated the impact of open innovation and how HSS used this tool to fight the opioid crisis.

  2. I would never have associated a healthcare-focused government agency to be involved in anything as hyper-innovative as a hackathon, primarily due to the high levels of bureaucracy (often needed) in this space! Your insights into these efforts was very informative and useful for me.
    I think the government absolutely has to take the lead in holding open innovation challenges aimed at addressing social issues. I imagine such an effort running in a similar model to DARPA – which has inspired, enabled and developed so many key technological innovations in aerospace, mobility, and many other high-tech fields. Also, I think that these efforts should be formalized as a requirement by HHS’ governing bodies and used as a model for other regulatory agencies.

  3. Thank you for a wonderfully written and thoughtful piece about one of the most important issues facing our country today. I am unsure of whether government has to take the lead on holding open innovation competitions to tackle this particular issue. In general, I think the incentives exist in the marketplace to generate innovation that drives social change, the key is in finding and aligning those incentives.

    This particular issue is tough because of years of stigmatizing drug use and because the costs of the crisis is hard to quantify and assign to an individual stakeholder as the entire community suffers. While I am unsure if government is the only way, I am sure that they should be part of the solution and should continue to leverage every tool at their disposal to end this crisis. In that vein, a $10,000 reward seems a paltry sum in the face of the costs of the epidemic.

  4. Very interesting article and application of crowd sourcing to tackle a major social issue.
    To your second question, I agree that there is a need of continued collaboration between the winning teams/projects and HHS to take promising ideas to market. Whether it’s encouraging winners to start a company (and perhaps provide support doing so) or developing agreement that HHS will take over the project (with potential compensation). I have doubt about the $10,000 prize: it’s not enough to achieve any significant progress, and there’s not much control on the use of this cash prize. Providing access to other resources (labs, developer time…) may prove more helpful.
    I admire the transparency and the efforts made by HHS to share their processes and documents publicly to make it easier to set up such initiatives.
    Transposing this approach to other federal agencies would be quite interesting, but judging from the obstacles HHS had to overcome to release relatively not sensitive data, it may be difficult for other agencies to follow that path.

  5. Really cool post on HHS – would not have expected a government agency to do something like this!

    I really like the questions you posed. I don’t think government needs to take the lead on social issues that could be solved by open innovation, and though not obvious social endeavors, platforms like Wikipedia, Linux, and Firefox are a few examples of it. I do think there need to be specific drivers facilitating open innovation’s success though, including the visibility of incremental change and “quick wins” that are often at odds with sweeping change around social issues.

    Regarding adoption of ideas, I think the only facilitator at the government’s disposal is the ability to allocate resources to try to promote adoption.

  6. This was a great read! It is exciting to see the lead role being taken by government agencies to drive innovative solutions for the opioid crisis. While I agree that the private sector needs to be incentivized to tackle this challenge, the initial work of highlighting viable business opportunities within the solutions space of the crisis will have to be taken up by the government. I see a parallel here to the drug development process, where exploratory research takes place in publicly-funded institutions, and the private sector steps in when the research evolves into a monetizable opportunity. Until this model of innovation for public goods remains the norm, the government will have to play an active role in crowd-sourcing innovative solutions and nurturing them till a viable business case can be made out that will attract private participation.

  7. I had a similar reaction to those above. While surprising, I’m very pleased to hear that the government is channeling the power of open innovation for the greater good. The opioid epidemic has caused severe pain across the country; as such, it’s great to see that the government is taking an active and innovative approach to end the crisis. After reading this article, I became intrigued about the topic and found this article on Google (https://www.fastcompany.com/40526666/this-heartbreaking-opioid-overdose-map-is-putting-hundreds-of-human-faces-on-an-epidemic). The article is about the “Celebrating Loved Ones” map created by Esri, which utilizes crowdsourcing to power an interactive map to help loved ones of victims cope. It’s wonderful to see that the benefits of crowdsourcing are being used in other ways as well to address the severe pain that’s been caused by this catastrophic crisis.

    Furthermore, I believe the government should continue to utilize crowdsourcing for idea generation across a wide variety of issues — but, at least in the near term, the government will still need to take the lead to address social issues through open innovation. Given this concept is relatively nascent, the government will need to show a proof of concept in order to gain widespread adoption. As such, the HHS must remain steadfast on its mission to solve the opioid crisis — and once that’s done — the HHS should collaborate with other groups within the government to share best practices.

  8. Thanks for this great article on a topic that is so important during today’s opioid crisis. I absolutely think the private sector can and should participate in open sourcing for solutions to the epidemic. In fact, I think it would help solve your second question regarding adoption. If a solution is developed by an average person rather than the government or a large corporation, individuals might be more willing to learn more about it and might feel emotionally compelled to consider using it (especially if the inventor has been personally affected by addiction). Any pharmaceutical or other private sector healthcare company stands to gain so much from solving this issue given the massive scale of the problem. The incentives are there for a large private sector company to invest – and if they create the incentives for ordinary people to devise solutions, they can make those solutions more relatable to those suffering. They can use the story of this “ordinary person” to motivate and inspire people to adopt the solution and hopefully recover from this disease.

Leave a comment