Big data: Bold promise? Or the hardest part of population health, precision medicine and better patient experience?

Seattle Children’s Chief Data Officer Eugene Kolker offered up a confession: “I’m a little bit nervous right now about what’s happening in our industry. People are moving from one extreme to another.”

His main concern? Healthcare providers and payers that are focusing on cost above all else. With changing payment models, shared savings and risk and patients empowered by everyday technologies, Kolker said, this new age requires providers to concentrate on so much more than the bottom line.

“We have to drastically improve experience for our customers,” he added. “In the next five years we’ll have really different customers. They’ll have a Google- or Amazon-like experience to compare providers by outcomes and expense, and they’ll be able to do that conveniently with phones they have right now.”

Addressing that demand is going to require putting big data and analytics to work in new ways — and leading health institutions are already thinking about how to transform data into information. In addition to Seattle Children’s, some of the first-movers include Advocate Healthcare and Brigham and Women’s.

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Despite all the buzz around big data, a smaller reality persists.

“I haven’t seen healthcare big data. I’ve only seen healthcare little data,” said Sriram Vishwanath, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Texas, Austin. “Healthcare data science is fundamentally different than every other domain. Healthcare is exponentially harder.”

One reason: Within a population of tens of millions of patients, Vishwanath explained, it’s typical that only a few hundred thousand are ultimately driving cost and treatment patterns.

What’s more, privacy concerns are inhibiting healthcare organizations from easily linking information to patients, according to Kenneth Mandl, MD, a professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and the Boston Children’s Hospital Chair in Biomedical Informatics and Population Health.

“There’s a reason we don’t have much data linked to the patient: privacy,” Mandl added. “One issue in healthcare is that the data doesn’t link very easily.”

Those are among the reasons that, according to Deloitte, only 16 percent of healthcare organizations are doing anything beyond dabbling — some analytics pilots, perhaps, or proofs-of-concept.;

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