Health IT Execs Urged To Promote Big Data

Some health IT leaders are already enthused about the potential of big data, but questions persist about its relevance to healthcare delivery reform.

Ken Terry, Contributor

October 14, 2012

4 Min Read

IW 500: 10 Healthcare IT Innovators

IW 500: 10 Healthcare IT Innovators

IW 500: 10 Healthcare IT Innovators (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

Health information management professionals should educate themselves about emerging big data trends and should be advocates in their organizations for using big data to improve healthcare, says a new article in the Journal of the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA).

While not entirely unbiased--the authors include two IBM executives and an executive of HCA, the big hospital chain--the piece does provide a good summary of what's happening in big data and explains why healthcare leaders should pay attention to it.

According to the article, big data has big potential for healthcare in a number of areas, including personalization of care, defining patient populations with a greater level of granularity, analyzing unstructured data, mining claims data for insights that can improve wellness and patient compliance, advancing medical research, and helping governmental agencies detect fraud, identify best care delivery practices, and improve bio-surveillance.

Among the health IT executives quoted in the piece is Lisa Khorey, vice president of enterprise systems and data management, information technology, at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which is collaborating with Oracle on a personalized care initiative based on big data.

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"Medicine can get closer to the action when it is prescriptive, predictive, and precise," Khorey said. "Big data allows organizations to focus on wellness and standardize care processes."

The article also quotes Kristen Wilson-Jones, vice president of data and online services for Sacramento, Calif.-based Sutter Health, as saying that big data can help provider organizations apply "mass personalization" principles to healthcare that are already being used in consumer product design and manufacturing.

"Big data will allow traditional claims and procedure data to be integrated with data created outside of healthcare to break down artificial barriers between healthcare settings," Wilson-Jones said. "For example, data from grocery store purchases, social media, and personal preferences can be integrated to better understand what impacts individual and population health."

But why should HIM professionals be pushing big data now, at a time when they're dealing with huge challenges such as Meaningful Use and ICD-10?

"We were trying to rally the [AHIMA] membership to make sure their skills are recognized and that they're ready to transition and play a leadership role in analytic opportunities," said Lorraine Fernandes, global healthcare industry ambassador for IBM and a coauthor of the Journal of AHIMA article, in an interview with InformationWeek Healthcare. "Because often the HIM professional is pigeonholed as the director of what used to be called medical records, or they're the coding experts. So this is a rallying cry for the membership: 'Guys, this is coming and you need to be ready and you need the skills to participate in this.' Because it will be exciting times as big data becomes mainstream."

Big data is already starting to have an impact on patient care. According to a recent announcement by NantHealth, oncologists are taking advantage of a supercomputer that reduces the time it takes to do a genomic analysis of a cancer tumor from eight weeks to 47 seconds per patient. This allows the oncologists to prescribe treatment based on the molecular pathways of the tumor rather than on its anatomical location, reducing the chance that the wrong treatment will be applied.

On the other hand, two health IT experts, David Kibbe, MD, and Vince Kuraitis, recently argued on The Health Care Blog that it's premature and unnecessary to use big data in patient care. Instead, they said, providers who want to improve healthcare quality and lower costs should focus on "relatively low-tech, high-touch, data-driven interventions" such as using reports generated by electronic registries to facilitate care management.

Fernandes agreed that the "small data" approach cited by Kibbe and Kuraitis is vital to improving healthcare delivery. But she added that the data generated by medical practices and collected by accountable care organizations may someday be used in big data initiatives.

Moreover, she pointed out, practicing physicians can benefit from some big data approaches now or in the near future. For example, if they want to use patient monitoring data from mobile devices, they'll need sophisticated applications to extract the "true intelligence out of the noise" in the data.

Also, she noted, physicians and patients will increasingly use social media as a platform for collaboration, while Twitter might be used to help predict emerging disease outbreaks. Both of these data sources will require big data analyses to be useful in healthcare.

InformationWeek Healthcare brought together eight top IT execs to discuss BYOD, Meaningful Use, accountable care, and other contentious issues. Also in the new, all-digital CIO Roundtable issue: Why use IT systems to help cut medical costs if physicians ignore the cost of the care they provide? (Free with registration.)

About the Author(s)

Ken Terry


Ken Terry is a freelance healthcare writer, specializing in health IT. A former technology editor of Medical Economics Magazine, he is also the author of the book Rx For Healthcare Reform.

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