Is Big Data Getting Too Big?

Is Big Data Getting Too Big?In the Age of Digital Medicine, Big Data is Big News and Big Business

Yesterday, Tom Sullivan, Editor at Government HealthIT, and reporting from his company- sponsored Government Health IT Conference, posted a piece on one of the conference keynotes discussing the impact of Big Data in healthcare. In Is Big Data the New Oil?, Sullivan recaps what Paul Lambert, president emeritus of Point B Inc., had to say on how Big Data is shaping the industry.  Big Data, Lambert says, “has striking similarities to oil, namely in how you store it, transform it, make sure to use it in the right way.” He also notes that while there are pitfalls and barriers associated with the use of Big Data in healthcare, “we’re seeing a lot of venture investment in patient engagement, and that’s the absolute first step in putting data to work for the healthcare industry. The second step is data liquidity – both transparency and the interoperability of it.”

In his article, Sullivan references an early example given by the presenter of  “quais-Big Data” in action, citing Kaiser’s use of predictive analytics to save $1 billion by reducing office visits through telehealth. Lambert says Kaiser’s HealthConnect relied on data to employ something similar to the practice of “hotspotting” used by law enforcement, a practice of looking at high crime areas to re-align resources. Lambert says organizations like Kaiser are “delving into correlations in environment, behavior or patient history for population health management purposes.”

Clearly in the age of digital medicine, Big Data is big news and big business. Case in point: in May of this year, HHS officials announced the award of a contract to Archimedes, a San Francisco-based healthcare data modeling firm, to develop a large-scale medical analytics system. The web-based system will be developed with assistance from Kaiser with a goal of providing physicians and health IT personnel access to a significant volumes of patient information and medical demographic data. Officials say the system will “improve medical research and analytics, and enable researchers to assess the effects of specific healthcare interventions more quickly and effectively.”

At Health Datapalooza held earlier this month, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius opened the conference with news the department is making available a treasure trove of new data on medicare spending, pricing and more to the public.  Health Datapalooza, of course, is an event focused on bringing transparency to the medical industry.

So is there a caution ahead sign in the drive towards Big Data in healthcare?

In April of this year McKinsey & Company published this article, The big-data revolution in US health care: Accelerating value and innovationThe article points out that while the healthcare industry has lagged behind other industries (notably retail and banking), it is catching up. That said, the authors caution  that while developments in the use of Big Data in healthcare are encouraging, they question if the healthcare industry is prepared to capture Big Data’s full potential.  From the article:

Health-care stakeholders are well versed in capturing value and have developed many levers to assist with this goal. But traditional tools do not always take complete advantage of the insights that big data can provide. Unit-price discounts, for instance, are based primarily on contracting and negotiating leverage. And like most other well-established health-care value levers, they focus solely on reducing costs rather than improving patient outcomes. Although these tools will continue to play an important role, stakeholders will only benefit from big data if they take a more holistic, patient-centered approach to value, one that focuses equally on health-care spending and treatment outcomes.

Finally, I just happened to hear a re-broadcast  this week of a March, 2013 NPR interview with one of the authors of Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think. The interview discusses how Big Data is being used to spot patterns, and make profits, highlighting examples in healthcare. The author also discusses when Big Data goes too far. Spoiler alert: if you’re a science fiction movie fan you’ll immediately get, and appreciate, the Minority Report reference in the audio interview below.