Is big data the new oil?

By Tom Sullivan
08:27 AM
a:2:{s:5:"title";s:95:"Paul Lambert, president emeritus, Point B, Inc. speaking at the Government Health IT Conference";s:3:"alt";s:0:"";}

“This is a story about oil and data,” Paul Lambert, president emeritus of Point B Inc., began, “two resources basically useless in their raw state but that can be very valuable when refined.”

Data has striking similarities to oil, namely in how you store it, transform it, make sure to use it in the right way, Lambert continued during a session here at the Government Health IT Conference and Exhibition on Tuesday afternoon.

“Healthcare in general really needs this tool,” he added. And as industry moves from the current five zetabytes (one zetabyte is a billion petabytes) to an order of magnitude, and beyond. “There seems to be a lot of convergence on what we need do to but not a lot on how. We’re seeing a lot on the e-commerce side, but there’s not a lot of big data going on in healthcare.” 

And while common pitfalls include adoption, psychological, and technology barriers, Lambert said “we’re seeing a lot of venture investment in patient engagement, and that’s the absolute first step in putting data to work for the healthcare industry...The second step is data liquidity – both transparency and the interoperability of it.”

Though few and far between, early examples of what Lambert called “quasi-Big Data” in healthcare include evidence-based medicine on real-world validation of research, predictive analytics like Kaiser’s Healthconnect, which saved it a cool $1 billion by reducing visits via telemedicine and a trend similar to the law enforcement practice known as hotspotting. In hotspotting, police departments use data to look at high crime areas and focus resources accordingly on those — some healthcare organizations are delving into correlations in environment, behavior or patient history for population health management purposes.

An oncologist in attendance continued the analogy by saying that unlike a farmer sitting on an oil field, he really wants to share his data and, likewise, many of his cancer patients would be happy to contribute if it helps other people with cancer, but industry has not stepped up to the plate to make that reasonably achievable and the regulatory minefield around sharing patient data poses its own risks. In other words: He cannot even give health data away.

“There’s a buyer beware situation going on that kind of reminds me of when I got out of college,” Lambert said. “Companies were buying a lot of IBM hardware and the joke was that they’d buy a mainframe but not know what they were going to use it for.” 

Just as oil transformed our economy not so long ago, Lambert added data holds a similar promise, and getting there will be more evolution than revolution.

“The U.S. government felt so strongly about the importance of oil that it created a strategic oil reserve,” Lambert said. “For Big Data, we should treat it as an asset that, as a country, is there for us when we need it.”

Related conference coverage:

Mostashari: Slow but steady interoperability progress

Harry Greenspun's 4 factors driving personal mHealth

HIMSS touts Innovation Center in burgeoning Cleveland area

HIMSS, NASCIO study finds HIE filling mostly regional needs

Q&A: The 3 pillars of population health management