For or Against – Which Side Will Providers Choose in the Big Data Revolution?

April 15th, 2013 / By Jeremy Zasowski

The healthcare industry, and specifically the healthcare provider segment, is moving towards a rather interesting and potentially dangerous intersection in the near future.  As electronic health records expand and allow for more digitized patient data to be analyzed by an ever-increasing array of analytical processing power, we’re going to see a huge growth in the amount of “information” that can be returned to healthcare providers.  At the same time, we’re seeing the well-known-but-often-ignored issue of “alert fatigue” and EHR workflow frustration becoming a major problem for healthcare providers.

Just browsing through any healthcare industry websites or taking a quick look at the PR coming from healthcare software companies, you can easily see what the McKinsey Company outlines in a recent article, “The big data revolution in healthcare: Accelerating value and innovation”: big data is on its way. 

Just to cut through the lingo here, when I refer to “big data,” I define that as a collection of patient data (i.e. patient demographics, diagnoses, treatments, outcomes) that is large enough and diverse enough (i.e. from a large, diverse, varied collection of patients) that allows a researcher to dig into the data and spot trends that wouldn’t be visible in a smaller group of patients and their data. An example here could be that with the patient data from several million people, we might be able to notice that highly prescribed diabetes medication A has poorer disease management for patients with gluten sensitivity than less often prescribed medication B, and thus we can better manage these diabetes + gluten sensitivity patient with medication B.  In a smaller set of patients, it’s likely that it would have been very difficult or near impossible to spot this trend.

With the huge spectrum of analytics that the big data revolution is opening up—from evidence based medicine and medication effectiveness to cost-reduction strategies and procedure utilization and effectiveness—there will be an increasing amount of information that will be flowing to healthcare providers.  Used in the right manner, it will help reduce costs and improve treatment outcomes. Just plugging it into the current “alert fatigue” model, however, will not work.

Healthcare providers have traditionally worked by deciding what information they needed about a patient, looking up that information in a chart or ordering a test to acquire the information, analyzing what they found with their own medical expertise, and prescribing appropriate treatment.  Today, while healthcare providers benefit from additional information that electronic medical records can provide, they are beginning to become overwhelmed by the flood of alerts, alarms, and other notifications that come with the increased data flow. This leads to alerts being ignored or turned off and potentially valuable information being lost, which will oftentimes result in unintended consequences in a patient’s treatment.

Big data and the types of analytics it will provide have the potential to revolutionize healthcare.  But just knowing how to produce more data is not going to be enough. We all need to figure out how to allow this data to be effectively integrated into healthcare providers’ workflows so that the data become actionable to drive improvements.  The goal is that healthcare providers view these big data analytics as a benefit and not an annoyance to be turned off.  If this doesn’t happen, the revolution will find providers fighting against big data when they could be championing it.

Jeremy Zasowski is the Marketing Manager for 3M Health Information System’s Emerging Business Team.