Frustrated by Big Data? Harvard professor says it's justified

The excitement that Big Data brings is matched by the confusion about exactly what the technologies can do, according to Leonard D’Avolio. And that is as true in healthcare as anywhere else.
By Bill Siwicki
08:09 AM
Big Data Harvard

The American Medical Association’s CEO James Madara, MD, famously called digital health the “snake oil of the early 21st century.” Rather than improving care and boosting professional satisfaction, many digital tools, he wrote, don’t work that well, and actually impede care, confuse patients and waste everyone’s time.

Has data become a “four-letter word”?

Many healthcare executives find themselves drowning in so-called Big Data, for instance, and don’t know where to start or how to proceed with the kinds of work that can improve care and trim costs.

“The excitement and anticipation of the potential of Big Data technologies and approaches is probably equally matched by the ambiguity, confusion and hype surrounding what these technologies are,” said Leonard D’Avolio, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and CEO of health IT vendor Cyft.

D’Avolio added that healthcare, as an industry, should be looking as the dotcom bust and boom for lessons learned about capitalizing on new technologies quickly. 

  Learn more at the Big Data & Healthcare Analytics Forum in San Franciso, May 15-16, 2017.  Register here.

“What we learned from that, after the necessary growing pains of wasting billions of dollars trying to jam what is in effect new ways of doing business into existing companies without a very exact focus on the problem you are trying to solve and careful consideration of the existing constraints and workflows, is that you are very likely to end up basically running around with a hammer assuming every problem is a nail.”

D’Avolio said healthcare executives, in an effort to save billions and reduce confusion, would be wise to remember that Big Data technologies are tools with great promise. But just like a hammer does not build a house, executives need experienced contractors, solid designs, expert project management, milestones, agreed-upon deliverables and more. Without these best practices there is only a really small chance that jamming a new tool into an existing workflow will somehow create value, he said.

“Some of these negative headlines we’re reading have this inherent assumption that the tool did not work, or it is overhyped,” he added. “These projects having problems getting off the ground, if they treated Big Data like the introduction of any tools with agreed-upon milestones and agreed-upon problems to solve, we would see more headlines with real-world successes. And we will be seeing those headlines. You just have to surround technology with proven best practices to really yield value.”

But will many healthcare executives’ frustrations with Big Data and other digital tools stymie development and progress?

“If you cannot measure something, you can’t improve it, and I think for decades now, clinicians’ as well as healthcare administrators’ frustrations with the way we have approached measurement and digital technology are entirely justified,” D’Avolio said. “The rapid adoption of technologies whose architectures are 40-plus years old and were designed as transactional or billing systems led to the inevitable missing the point of clinical goals of delivering care effectively.”

D’Avolio argued that most of the digital technologies developed in the last few decades were not designed to improve the quality of care and deliver care more efficiently.

“If any industry has a justified right to be frustrated with what information technology has or has not done for them in the last 30 years, it’s healthcare,” he said. “But that does not change the fact that IT is transformational in nature if applied to solving business problems, if aligned with the incentives of the system, and if the incentives are toward improving the quality of care delivered.”

D’Avolio will deliver a keynote address at the HIMSS and Healthcare IT News Big Data and Healthcare Analytics Forum, May 15-16, 2017, in San Francisco, during a session entitled “Hype and Disappointment on the Way to Healthcare’s Promised Land.” 

Twitter: @SiwickiHealthIT
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