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At the World Health Care Congress, Industry Experts Agree: Managing Big—Or Even Bigger—Data Will Require a Great Deal of Thought

March 23, 2015
by Mark Hagland
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Industry experts participating in a panel on care delivery transformation through data agree—how to manage data-driven processes is itself a work in process

To what extent has data analytics begun to really help facilitate transformation in healthcare? The question is far from an abstract one, and elicited a wide range of opinions at a panel that took place Monday at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C. as the first full day of the World Health Care Congress + Exhibition got underway.

A number of questions related to that fundamental one were addressed during a panel entitled “Technology’s Role in Health Care Transformation: Where Will Investments Result in Higher Quality and Greater Affordability?” which was moderated by Robert M. Wachter, M.D., professor and associate chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California-San Francisco, and author of the new book, The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s Computer Age. Joining Wachter on the panel were  Victor Dzau, M.D., president of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, and former president and CEO of the Duke University Health System; John Niederhuber, M.D., CEO of the Inovata Translational Medicine Institute and former director of the National Cancer Institute; and Bryce Williams, CEO and president of the Dallas-based HealthMine, a vendor firm that works with health plans to support plan member engagement in wellness and personal health management programs.

When Wachter asked Dzau what he thinks the term “big data” means, Dzau said, “I think when people say big data, they don’t know what they’re talking about. Because when you look at big data, it really has to do with the social systems, and everything else, around care; it’s about the totality of interaction. Right now,” Dzau said, “we’re really not dealing with big data, we’re dealing with information around the electronic health record. But we’re starting to deal with things like wearables, and eventually, we’ll be dealing with physiology and other elements, and then we’ll be dealing with big data. And I’m quite confident that technically, we’ll be able to deal with [managing data flowing into information systems from wearables and other sources from outside medical institutions], and that interoperability will be overcome.”

But, Dzau added, “The much bigger challenge is the sharing of information, the democratization of data, and the securing of data. We’re really at the beginning of this journey.”

Wachter referenced that Dzau’s recent tenure as CEO of the Duke University Health System, saying, “You were running the Duke Health System just eight months ago; and now projecting forward, let’s say you have all those patient monitors providing data, and all sorts of other feeds” coming into electronic health records (EHRs). “How does a person who is CEO of a health system, deal with that?

“First, you need a systematic collection of information; otherwise,” Dzau said, “you could be bomarded with data. So we have to proceed in a systematic way” with data, “and, we have to train our clinicians not only to be competent in using the EHR, but also to curate data, to participate in collecting information on trends that can help us, and to be able to use it.”

What role does the individual patient have in contributing to the process of data collection and outcomes? HealthMine’s Williams said that, “In terms of data around the consumer, HealthMine allows you to put data into the system, and last year, we had input 495 million pieces of data; and then what do you do with it? We work with health plans, employers, etc., and United Healthcare is our biggest customer, with about 1 million members in our program,” Williams noted. The key in everything related to patient engagement around data, Williams said, is that “You have to tie the data back into incentives for the patients and plan members. And it’s very hard to get patients/plan members engaged unless they can be part of that process.” He added that “We talked recently with executives at a health plan, who said, if we simply involve our plan members in the process” of receiving their own health data, “we get 38 percent member engagement; but we get 82 percent engagement if we tie their participation back to incentives.” At the same time, Williams also noted that the role of the physician is “paramount” in data-driven population health work.

What about the future of data, encompassing the leveraging of genomic data for patient care purposes, among other uses. “This is a year where everybody’s talking about big data, and now we’ve begun talking about precision medicine, with the announcement of a federal initiative in that,” Wachter noted. In that context, he asked, “Where are some of the opportunities and challenges?”

In response, Niederhuber said that, “Clearly, we know that a lot of health problems involve a genomic component. The healthcare system that we are so familiar with and that all of us were trained in, has really focused on the patient coming in who is sick, and all our efforts are directed at diagnosing what is wrong and then directing our therapeutic treatment of that patient, and then our management of that care takes place in a very episodic fashion. What we’re learning,” he said, “is that we need to understand as much as we can about that patient as early on in life as possible, so that we can understand the systems affected by genomic changes from early on.”

The burden on physicians

Meanwhile, Wachter noted the increasing sentiment among physicians in practice that they are becoming ever more burdened by demands for their involvement in data-driven initiatives, such as value-based purchasing, population health management, patient-centered home vehicles, and accountable care. How can some of the burden be lifted from doctors on a day-to-day basis?