The True Benefit of Big Data in Healthcare: A Perspective from the Industry
By Rich Temple
In response to a September 9, 2013 “Readers Write” article that suggests “big data” is the next boondoggle, I would like to illustrate the promise of big data, also referred to as business intelligence and analytics (BI) in healthcare. In that post, the author alludes to the challenges faced by industries embarking on big data journeys dating back to the 1960s.
While the struggles he noted were valid through those experiences, so much is different now in terms of the absolute necessity of big data in healthcare, as well as the exponentially-improved technology that can crunch numbers in nanoseconds. We need to recognize that the game has changed and now is the time for BI to make a significant impact to improve healthcare.
In general, broad concepts such as BI do have the potential to run aground in industries where they are treated as “nice to have.” The healthcare industry in 2013 is at a key inflection point where it absolutely cannot move forward without key BI and analytics as an engine for these healthcare reform initiatives, as well as many others:
- Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs)
- Population Health
- Health Information Exchanges (HIEs)
- Health Insurance Exchanges (HIXs)
- Value-based purchasing reimbursement initiatives
- Reporting regulatory requirements around quality and cost coming from the government
BI and analytics become the fuel that powers the healthcare industry’s ability to fulfill its obligations to all its stakeholders under healthcare reform. If we are going to improve the quality of care necessary for the above mentioned healthcare programs, BI will need to be used to provide information with the highest level of integrity possible for accurate decision-making across the healthcare industry. When a concept reaches a critical mass as an essential business driver for growth and sustainability for healthcare providers, it should not be seen as a boondoggle.
While healthcare still has quite a way to go on its journey toward true interoperability across systems, recent initiatives, such as Meaningful Use, ACOs, HIEs, among others, point to just how much has been achieved in mitigating the data integrity challenges that the author notes. These challenges are not only being addressed, but are in the process of being solved by current initiatives to connect systems and organization through:
- Interoperability between hospitals and their affiliated physician networks
Recent mandates involving coalescing around particular standards (e.g., LOINC) also help facilitate interoperability. As these challenges continue to be worked through, it becomes that much easier to extract truly actionable information from the mounds of data that are housed in our disparate healthcare information systems.
Another key differentiator that makes BI not only possible, but achievable in ways that it could never have been until recently, is the advanced technology that is now available to process staggering amounts of data in time units measured in seconds or minutes, as opposed to weeks, months, or years. With new BI technologies such as Hadoop, it is no longer ridiculous to assume that an organization can mine many terabytes of data in just seconds.
In the past, organizations had no way to access all that data in nearly real-time, rendering a lot of their efforts to come to naught. Today, we do have that capability. When today’s consumer cell phones contain more sophisticated computing technology than the Apollo rockets that landed on the moon, it has to be taken as a given that certain challenges that industries grappled with in the past no longer apply to today’s world of BI.
Given the tumult in healthcare and the new abilities to use data in ways previously thought impossible, I see BI not as a boondoggle, but as an essential component of any healthcare organization’s survivability. The author is spot-on when he expresses concerns about the challenges of harmonizing data across disparate provider and functional systems; all systems, whether they are EHR, payer, decision-support, financial, case management, or one of many others, need to communicate much richer information than ever before. But the changing face of healthcare is pushing these “conversations” along in ways we could not have imagined even a few years ago.
Without BI and analytics, the new paradigm of healthcare will fail if we don’t move forward full speed ahead. Stakeholders will need to bring the commitment and expertise to bear. By working through the challenges together and moving forward, we can finally unlock the potential of the systems we have invested in to provide real improvements in the quality of care and bend the cost curve to make the benefits of healthcare transformation available to all. BI will play a central role in this effort to take healthcare to the next level.
Rich Temple, MBA is national practice director for Beacon Partners.