Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Healthcare Big Data Goldrush

With the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) in the news so much recently, I've been thinking a lot about my own past experiences in healthcare, and what I saw (and didn't see). Then I saw this New York Times blog post. It's quite a read, but the big takeaways for me are that doctors are losing their sanity and confidence, while research continues to show that the demeanor and confidence of a doctor has far greater results on outcomes than expected.

A combination of irrational exuberance and economic forces (including legislative) have created something of a big data gold rush in healthcare. And like any good gold rush, you're going to see unorganized growth, heartbreak, fortunes made and lost, and more than a few dead bodies.

The truism being thrown around is that healthcare is the next industry to be transformed by data, and that data is going to change healthcare more than anything else (even, perhaps, than Obamacare) over the next decade. And while both proclamations might be true, they fundamentally strip away the most basic aspect of healthcare--the relationship between the patient and the doctor, the sick and the well, the dying and the living, the needy and the needed. No amount of analysis, legislation, technology, or bureaucracy can get around this fact. And yet, it seems to be ignored more each day, sucked under a tidal wave of implementations, electronic health records, politics, "innovations", and process improvement.

Banking, retail--these are industries where human relationships were never at the core, and it's probably not a coincidence that they have responded so well to going under the big-data knife. The continual attempts to humanize these industries ("relationship banking", the ad industry) is a testament to how inhuman money and consumption can be. Healthcare, fundamentally, is very much about the human connection. And while there's certainly potential for data to improve the quality of care, as we fearlessly march forward into our data-driven healthcare future, the human element is getting pushed further and further away from the center.

I do not mean to imply that data has nothing to offer healthcare. It clearly does. What I am saying is that as data professionals we cannot forget that the problems we attempt to solve are, fundamentally, not about data in the end. To forget this is to do a disservice to our colleagues, our customers, and society. In retail and finance you can do a lot without ever thinking about the living, breathing people at the opposite ends of a transaction. But healthcare will not be so accommodating to data-centric problem solving. And yet, as existing data applications in healthcare turn out to not be as fruitful as hoped, the industry's answer is more data!

This is bigger than healthcare. If the big-datification of healthcare turns out to be a turkey, think about what that means for the future of analytics and big data.

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