The Future Of…Healthcare Big Data

Posted on March 12, 2015 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of and John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

This post is part of the #HIMSS15 Blog Carnival which explores “The Future of…” across 5 different healthcare IT topics.

In yesterday’s post about The Future of…The Connected Healthcare System, I talked a lot about healthcare data and the importance of that data. So, I won’t rehash those topics in this post. However, that post will serve as background for why I believe healthcare has no clue about what big data really is and what it will mean for patients.

Healthcare Big Data History
If we take a quick look back in the history of big data in healthcare, most people will think about the massive enterprise data warehouses that hospitals invested in over the years. Sadly, I say they were massive because the cost of the project was massive and not because the amount of data was massive. In most cases it was a significant amount of data, but it wasn’t overwhelming. The other massive part was the massive amount of work that was required to acquire and store the data in a usable format.

This is what most people think about when they think of big data in healthcare. A massive store of a healthcare system’s data that’s been taken from a variety of disparate systems and normalized into one enterprise data warehouse. The next question we should be asking is, “what were the results of this effort?”

The results of this effort is a massive data store of health information. You might say, “Fantastic! Now we can leverage this massive data store to improve patient health, lower costs, improve revenue, and make our healthcare organization great.” That’s a lovely idea, but unfortunately it’s far from the reality of most enterprise data warehouses in healthcare.

The reality is that the only outcome was the enterprise data warehouse. Most project plans didn’t include any sort of guiding framework on how the enterprise data warehouse would be used once it was in place. Most didn’t include budget for someone (let alone a team of people) to mine the data for key organization and patient insights. Nope. Their funding was just to roll out the data warehouse. Organizations therefore got what they paid for.

So many organizations (and there might be a few exceptions out there) thought that by having this new resource at their fingertips, their staff would somehow magically do the work required to find meaning in all that data. It’s a wonderful thought, but we all know that it doesn’t work that way. If you don’t plan and pay for something, it rarely happens.

Focused Data Efforts
Back in 2013, I wrote about a new trend towards what one company called Skinny Data. No doubt that was a reaction to many people’s poor experiences spending massive amounts of money on an enterprise data warehouse without any significant results. Healthcare executives had no doubt grown weary of the “big data” pitch and were shifting to only want to know what results the data could produce.

I believe this was a really healthy shift in the use of data in a healthcare organization. By focusing on the end result, you can do a focused analysis and aggregation of the right data to be able to produce high quality results for an organization. Plus, if done right, that focused analysis and aggregation of data can serve as the basis for other future projects that will use some of the same data.

We’re still deep in the heart of this smart, focused healthcare data experience. The reality is that healthcare can still benefit so much from small slices of data that we don’t need to go after the big data analysis. Talk about low hanging fruit. It’s everywhere in healthcare data.

The Future of Big Data
In the future, big data will matter in healthcare. However, we’re still laying the foundation for that work. Many healthcare organizations are laying a great foundation for using their data. Brick by brick (data slice by data slice if you will), the data is being brought together and will build something amazingly beautiful.

This house analogy is a great one. There are very few people in the world that can build an entire house by themselves. Instead, you need some architects, framers, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, roofers, painters, designers, gardeners, etc. Each one contributes their expertise to build something that’s amazing. If any one of them is missing, the end result isn’t as great. Imagine a house without a plumber.

The same is true for big data. In most healthcare organizations they’ve only employed the architect and possibly bought some raw materials. However, the real value of leveraging big data in healthcare is going to require dozens of people across an organization to share their expertise and build something that’s amazing. That will require a serious commitment and visionary leadership to achieve.

Plus, we can’t be afraid to share our expertise with other healthcare organizations. Imagine if you had to invent cement every time you built a house. That’s what we’re still doing with big data in healthcare. Every organization that starts digging into their data is having to reinvent things that have already been solved in other organizations.

I believe we’ll solve this problem. Healthcare organizations I know are happy to share their findings. However, we need to make it easy for them to share, easy for other organizations to consume, and provide appropriate compensation (financial and non-financial). This is not an easy problem to solve, but most things worth doing aren’t easy.

The future of big data in healthcare is extraordinary. As of today, we’ve barely scraped the surface. While many may consider this a disappointment, I consider it an amazing opportunity.