Our 11th National Symposium, the Opioid Epidemic . . . and an Opportunity for Progress

One of the big lessons learned in the aftermath of 9/11 was that the agencies, departments and even individual officials of government couldn’t operate optimally because, in simple terms, they were working in silos and therefore weren’t able to communicate with each other. In a commendable response to that reality, politicians mainly put aside their partisan differences and established the national Information Sharing Environment in order to enhance our national security. Today, as many of us wonder whether interoperability and information-sharing can really be achieved in the world of health and human services (as well as in other realms), ISE stands as concrete proof of what’s possible when a consensus develops that achieving a specific objective is important enough.

Those two issues – what’s possible and what’s important enough – weren’t explicit themes of the Stewards of Change Institute’s 11th Annual National Symposium earlier this month. But they loomed large throughout the two-day event, which took place in Baltimore in collaboration with Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health and the School of Medicine. In particular, to my mind, they were the central questions we were really trying to answer during a series of discussions we held about 1) the opioid/heroin epidemic that’s gripping the U.S. and 2) the building of a “Network of Networks – Community of Practice” to more-effectively address this crisis, as well as others that might follow.

In order to focus these discussions as concretely as possible, the Stewards team devised a case study about a woman who, because of an auto accident, descended from a rewarding life as a gainfully employed mother and home-owner to an unnerving existence as a heroin addict, living in a shelter, whose children were removed from her custody and placed into foster care. This chilling scenario was based on actual experiences, which demonstrated that agency after agency lost opportunity after opportunity to prevent the many problems that occurred, to mitigate the damage, or to help in numerous other ways. Why? Because the agencies, across HHS and related domains such as education and criminal justice, were working in silos and therefore weren’t able to exchange potentially vital information with each other about the woman and her family.  (Click here to see the graphic mural summarizing recommendations from the case study activity)

That’s where the Stewards’ idea of a Network of Networks (NoN) comes in. During the coming months, using ISE as a model, we plan to work with federal and state officials, philanthropies and industry partners to develop NoN as a means of accelerating interoperability and information-sharing across relevant domains to shape more-effective responses to the opioid epidemic. Then, using this burgeoning crisis as a prism through which to see the value of systemic communication, we hope to cement NoN as a permanent fixture not only to address major problems but also to improve policy and practice generally.

The Network of Networks is just one action item growing out of our symposium, which was titled “Interoperability in Action: What’s Working Now – and How We Can Shape the Future.” We’re also developing additional recommendations, which we plan to offer to the next federal Administration, based on the input from the 150 thought leaders from across the country who participated in the event. In addition, we’re following up in numerous ways on other key elements of the symposium, including:

  • A white paper written by the Stewards team, which we unveiled and discussed, titled “Improving Processes and Practices in Child Welfare: Is Cognitive Computing Part of the Solution?” We’re planning a webinar on the issue this summer, so please watch your email for details. To read the paper, click here.
  • The Stewards’ new InterOptimability Training Curriculum and Certification program, a first-of-its-kind initiative designed to teach everyone from executives to case workers how to bridge silos, expedite information-sharing and manage effective organizational change. To learn more about ITCC and sign up for the training, click here.

Please keep an eye on our website and our YouTube channel in the days to come, because we will be posting videos of all the sessions at the symposium, along with terrific graphic illustrations, PowerPoints and other materials that were presented at the event – which, by the way, many participants thought was the best we’ve ever held. Our sincere thanks to our sponsors for making it possible; they included: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Deloitte, Microsoft, CGI, MarkLogic and the Public Consulting Group. To read pre-event blogs by some industry leaders in these corporations, click here.

One final thought as all of us on the Stewards of Change Institute team embark on our second decade of work. Whether we’re exploring ways to address the opioid crisis or to form a Network of Networks, we suggest that the next stage of information-sharing and interoperability – which we call InterOptimability – is the right means to the right end, which at the bottom line is to improve the lives of everyone in our country. We know that goal is important enough, and we deeply believe it’s possible.

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