Big Data: The Key To Better Health Care?

The discussion about how to fix health care in America shouldn't focus on websites or servers or insurance mandates or policies. It should focus on better data analytics.

That's according to a panel of experts who spoke Tuesday at the TechAmerica Foundation's Big Data Roadshow in Boston, which examined the use of big data solutions in the health-care industry. Several speakers, including Corbin Petro, the chief operating officer of the Massachusetts Department of Medicaid in Boston, talked about the value of collecting good, actionable data to improve customer service and reduce costs.

For example, Petro discussed her office's use of data analytics in Medicaid screening for more than 1 million residents. Massachusetts this year became the first state to implement a predictive modeling application for Medicaid pre-payment fraud and abuse.

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"Data can be very valuable," she said, "but organizations need to be cautious with big data and health care because of the nature of the data."

Therein lies the challenge: Not only is the amount of medical data massive, but it's also siloed by government departments and accountable care organizations and much of it is restricted by regulations protecting patient privacy.

"The challenge of collecting data to do directive research is that it's not available," said Dr. John Brownstein, associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. "Research questions aren't really driving data collection. Data collection is in some ways driving research."

Brownstein founded HealthMap, a website that delivers real-time information about infectious disease outbreaks by tracking public information -- from news media and eyewitness reports to social media and official government information.

"As part of my Ph.D. work I was asking the government -- state, local, and federal -- for data and nobody would give me any data," Brownstein said. "So I just said I'm going to get my own data."

Dr. David Delaney, chief medical officer at SAP America's health-care business, talked about the rapidly increasing spend on health care -- $5 trillion, or 20 percent of the country's GDP by 2021 -- in both the public and private sectors, which he said isn't sustainable.

"The interesting thing with health care is that it always seems like this immovable object. It's the largest sector of the largest economy of the world," Delaney said. "[But] there's no correlation at all between what's paid for a service and the quality of it."

Big data, or rather, better data collection and analysis can help improve care and lower costs, Delaney said. Specifically, he said, health-care providers and government agencies need to overcome interoperability challenges to unlock valuable data and then use that data to take a more proactive, forward-looking approach to care with real-time analytics.

"The primary avenue to get from here to there is going to be a change in both process and technology," Delaney said. "Looking through the rearview mirror while you're driving in health care is no longer an option."

Another issue is finding the right tools to collect and analyze the data. Dr. Andrea Foulkes, director of the Institute for Computational Biology, Biostatistics and Bioinformatics (ICB3) at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said technology and health-care companies need to design better solutions to tackle big data. For example, data on genetic mutations could help better identify chronic diseases and conditions and allow doctors to deliver personalized medicine. But that's a long way off, she said, because we don't yet have to tools to effectively analyze that data.

"If you're looking at ears, you wouldn't use a stethoscope, and you wouldn't use otoscope to listen to your heart," said Foulkes. "We're just not using the right tools to look at the data."

But it takes more than just good technology to make big data work for health care, the panelists said. Patrick Larkin, director of the John Adams Innovation Institute at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, talked about the need for more cooperation and data sharing within the different silos in government departments. Too often, he said, IT professionals don't communicate with one another and can't access valuable data to increase efficiency.

"It's not just about getting the data out there on the platform," Larkin said. "It's about changing cultures."