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Editor’s Notes: What Do “Big History” and the Present Moment in U.S. Healthcare Have in Common?

February 5, 2016
by Mark Hagland
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What do the agricultural experiments of early civilizations have to do with the present moment in U.S. healthcare?

Being a “big picture” kind of person, I’ve always enjoyed “big-picture”-focused books on history, anthropology, sociology, economics, policy, and societal trends. Thus, when I ran across Cynthia Stokes Brown’s 2007 book, Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present, I was hooked from the Table of Contents onward. Indeed, as the book’s jacket explains, “The first popular exploration of an intriguing new hybrid discipline, Big History melds traditional history with the latest scientific though to create a multi-faceted yet accessible narrative of world history.” And yes, it really does begin at the very beginning , 13.7 billion years ago with the Big Bang, then moving through the evolution of the universe, of the solar system and our own planet Earth, from the emergence of human beings to the shift from hunting and gathering to settled agriculture, and forward into the emergence of cities, industrialization, and the modern age.

One of the chapters I found most fascinating was “Early Agriculture (8,000-3,500 BCE),” which covers the transition in numerous societies from hunting and gathering to settled agriculture. Here’s an especially compelling passage: “The process of domesticating sheep and goats may have started with men guarding a herd as it moved. Men then herded groups of animals within certain locations, began feeding them, and then corralled and housed them in permanent settlements. The domestication of plants took place in an equally long, slow process. People carefully observed the wild grasses as they collected seeds to grind and eat… [T]hey first noticed wild seeds growing at their campsites where the seeds not consumed had been dumped. They must have observed that some grasses had larger seeds, easier than others to harvest and process into foods.”

This is how human beings have always evolved forward, through observation, experimentation, and learning based on repeated attempts via continuous trial-and-error-based experiences, punctuated by “eureka moments” and eventual, if always potentially reversible, successes.

And isn’t that where things are at right now with what we at HCI have been calling “the new healthcare” in the U.S., these days? Public and private purchasers and payers of healthcare are joining together with providers to develop new care delivery and financing mechanisms that will bring more value to everyone, in a system that is otherwise heading towards unsustainability.

Here at HCI, we are committed to championing change, including via our annual Healthcare Informatics Innovator Awards Program. Indeed, this is the eighth year in a row in which we’ve used the program to honor multidisciplinary teams of healthcare professionals that are moving the needle forward on quality, efficiency, cost-effectiveness, clinical transformation, data exchange, and many other areas.

This year, our four finalist winning teams, from UT Southwestern Medical Center, Scottsdale Health Partners, Penn Medicine, and the Indiana Health Information Exchange, are showing their colleagues nationwide what is possible when the right vision, strategy, planning, execution, IT, and analytics, are combined into successful initiatives. Their stories—as well as the stories of ten very worthy finalist teams—begin on page X. Please join all of us at HCI in congratulating these winning teams. We’d love to see you join us in person at our Innovator Awards Reception on March 1 in Las, Vegas, too (please turn to our website for information and updates on that event).

And, just as the earliest agriculturalists learned via trial and error, so, too, are the leaders of the U.S. healthcare industry doing so, right now, in 2016. Were the earliest farmers both scared and excited at the same time? My guess would be yes. But look what eventually happened; and that is the story of human history.





First, congratulations to the four finalists for their efforts to continue to innovate. Innovation is paramount as we collectively work to avoid the brick wall of unsustainability in healthcare. Access and affordability are critical. So too is harnessing analytics in a usable fashion, at the bedside and in real time where it can help bring clinicians better and faster data in a format that allows higher rates of intervention and better outcomes. Companies such as PeriGen are doing just that, alerting clinicians at the bedside to trends or subtle markers that require their skillful attention before issues compound.

Indeed, there's so much we can take form our ancestors. Actually, I'm not a fan of traditional medical treatment but over the centuries doctors of China, Korea, Japan, and other Asian countries have accumulated knowledge that can be used in today's medical treatments when undergoing surgery or taking regular medicine doesn't help. And according to the research, lots of today's medicines and treatments are based on those our ancestors did, they are just elevated to another level. Additionally, technologies are helping with providing proper healthcare.