9 tips for getting started with big data

iHT2 report helps providers untangle challenges, move toward more useful analytics

With big data promising enormous clinical and financial rewards for healthcare, but posing just as many technical and strategic challenges, the Institute for Health Technology Transformation (iHT2) has published a study mapping the way forward for providers at the starting line.

"Health care providers face significant obstacles in implementing analytics, business intelligence tools and data warehousing," writes iHT2 CEO Waco Hoover in the report. "Health data is diverse, comprising structured and unstructured information in a range of formats and distributed in hard-to-penetrate silos owned by a multitude of stakeholders.

Moreover, he writes, "each stakeholder has different interests and business incentives while still being closely intertwined."

The white paper, "Transforming Health Care Through Big Data," is meant to offer providers some models for "innovative uses of data assets that can enable them to reduce costs, improve quality, and provide more accessible care."

Drawing on the expertise of leaders from Kaiser Permanente, IBM, Sharp Community Medical Group, Newton Medical Center and University of Manitoba, the report seeks to help hospitals and health networks overcome the headaches and hurdles on the way to the big goal of big data, says Hoover: "to make better, evidence-based decisions."

And there are plenty of challenges. The industry is still in its infancy when it comes to data collection, for instance, 43 percent of providers say they're unable to collect sufficient data to improve care.

The data that is collected is often untrusted – or at least unstructured, which makes it all but useless to even the best analytics technology. Moreover, data fragmentation – scattered as it is among EHRs, lab systems and financial software, makes it hard to draw meaningful conclusions about organizations' holistic health.

Infrastructure is another big issue, of course. iHT2 shows how legacy systems and new technologies have trouble interfacing, and that lack of interoperability remains "a significant obstacle to many organizations’ efforts to leverage big data." Providers' options for upgrading, even if they could afford it, are limited.

Ever-present privacy and security concerns only complicate things further.

The iHT2 white paper lays out nine strategies for those looking to make an earnest attempt at making use of big data.

Implement a data governance framework. "A carefully structured framework for enterprise-wide data governance is arguably the first and most critical priority to ensure the success of any effort to leverage big data for health care delivery," according to the report.