The right data can work wonders

Datapalooza offers takes on megatrends, disruption, outcomes and even a few selfies
By Diana Manos
10:34 AM
Bryan Sivak, Health and Human Services CTO

Ellen DeGeneres eat your heart out.

Rivaling her record-setting selfie at the Oscars featuring a dozen or so stars, two thousand attendees at the fifth annual Health Dapalooza joined in a selfie taken by Bryan Sivak, chief technology officer for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The excitement? It was palpable.

And here at Health Datapalooza exactly how information gets analyzed is up for new ways to be disrupted, revamped and rethought.

The theme: endless possibilities. In fact, the ways that the gathering of the appropriate data and the analysis of it can improve health outcomes is astounding. But first the right data must to be collected.

To wit, the information needed isn’t always available, as Atul Gawande, MD, a professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, and a best-selling author and public health researcher explained.

“When we unpeel what has happened, we find that we have been miscalculating the whole time,” Gawande said of a deep dive into the current available healthcare data, which shows the sickest patients accounting for the most healthcare costs, but, even more disconcerting, they are typically receiving the worst care. Understanding their lives and needs can help bring costs down.

Yet, historically there have only been three ways these people are addressed: via the doctor’s office, the emergency room or the hospital. Outside of that, Gawande said, patients are typically out of luck. 

Gawande sat down with RiskAnalytics, Inc., a few years ago to analyze data on the sickest patients in a study. Examination of the actual environment of some of these patients showed solvable problems within their daily lives that could make all the difference, he continued, not only to the bottom line but more importantly to those patients’ health.

Helping a blind diabetic patient, for instance, give himself an insulin injection after discovering that he was was failing to properly load the syringe. The allergy patient who lived in a condemned and molded home and needed a new vacuum and some home repairs. A 25-year-old migraine patient who was faithfully taking medication but, even still, went to the emergency room 29 times with headaches within a 10-month period, only to have the researchers discover, finally, that she wasn’t even on the right medication. 

To get to the root of problems such as these takes good data, not just the "data exhaust" providers rely on today. “Data still isn’t at the center of healthcare,” Gawande said. 

It's exciting to see progress made, like it was in these cases, but providers need to think bigger. “We can solve [care] problems in single institutions," Gawande said, "but to make this scalable we have to make the invisible visible."

Sivak's HHS predecessor, Todd Park, now U.S. chief technology officer, has arguably done more than anyone to grow the data liberation movement.

Park identified four “megatrends” that have arisen in the health data world:

  1. Gravitation toward payment for quality
  2. Rapid digitization
  3. Increasing patient access to their own records
  4. Growing access to key general information resources in computable form.

These are creating “an unprecedented opportunity for innovators in healthcare,” he said. 

Indeed, in healthcare innovation "the oil rush is on," added athenahealth founder and CEO Jonathan Bush

“We can begin to ‘trick out’ our healthcare so that it represents us,” Bush said. “It’s going to start very painful and very lonely, but it’s going to get less painful and less lonely very shortly.”

Not everyone has grasped the vision yet, Bush assured, but they will.

“I suggest bravely getting out there,” he said.

More regional news

Preferred Behavioral Health Group telehealth

(Credit: Preferred Behavioral Health Group)

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