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Healthcare big data not in the clinical setting yet

A panel of experts seemed to agree: Healthcare big data is not quite there yet. But when it becomes a reality -- especially in the clinical setting -- it will bring value.

The medical community is still trying to define exactly what healthcare big data is, what it looks like, how it will work in the caregiving setting and how providers will overcome certain barriers.

"On the one hand, we have examples where innovation is starting to become democratized, where others are getting involved in healthcare," said Aman Bhandari, executive director of data science and insights at Merck & Co., a pharmaceutical company based in Kenilworth, N.J. He spoke on a panel at the Global Pediatric Innovation Summit in Boston.

For example, Bhandari said, Fitbit, Apple Watch and similar technologies already have a tremendous effect on healthcare via an individual-by-individual basis.

"On the other hand, the cultural default setting for people in healthcare, the different stakeholders, is not one [that] accepts that more open and connected environment," he added.

Panelists discuss the idea of 'small data'

As for whether healthcare big data has arrived, opinions differ. John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children's Hospital and a panel participant, doesn't think big data has peaked in healthcare -- especially in the clinical setting.

Brownstein suspects the integration of big data into clinical work is still five to 10 years away.

William Crawford, vice president and head of the Boston office for Fitbit, does not consider the data that Fitbit tracks, collects and provides to users as big data. Instead, he thinks of that information as "small data." In order for true healthcare big data to arrive, Crawford said, small data needs to be aggregated and integrated into the clinical setting, and put into context.

"The way that [Fitbit] generally [does] that is through openness through APIs," Crawford said. "We have a full API, which means that people can plug in ... they can get their data out and they can integrate that into whatever applications that they choose."

This would, in turn, help bring that information into context in the clinical setting.

It's small data … to send an email saying, 'Hey, you should get a flu shot.'
Jackson Wilkinsonpresident, Kinsights

However, others on the panel think healthcare big data is already beginning to appear. Andrew Wiesenthal, M.D., director of healthcare practice at Deloitte Consulting and a member of the federal Health IT Standards Committee, gave an example of his health insurance company, Kaiser Permanente, badgering him with phone calls and emails reminding him he needed to get his flu shot.

"They've taken the big data, they know how many millions of people are Medicare beneficiaries and ... everybody who's eligible for influenza immunization, and they're after me and they won't let go. Why? Because the data tells them it's actually worth it to do that," Wiesenthal said. "That's a worthwhile investment for that accountable care delivery system to make."

Jackson Wilkinson, founder, president and head of product engineering at Kinsights, a San Francisco-based advice-sharing network for parents, agreed: "It's small data ... to send an email saying, 'Hey, you should get a flu shot.' It's big data to say, 'It's really worth it to get these emails out to folks, because it really makes a huge, substantive difference in the overall cost and health of our clinical base.'"

Ultimately, big data should be in patients' hands

Many on the panel expressed hope that healthcare big data would soon become more visibly valuable in the clinical setting.

"I'd like, as a clinician, to be alerted to something that's really out of line," Wiesenthal said. "To make sure that the parent [or patient] who is, I hope, already equipped with a good plan for what to do for [a problem] has taken that action. That's the way the system ought to work."

Not only that, but true healthcare big data should also help patients and their caregivers track complex diseases, as well as help them understand which interventions and medications work well. That's one of big data's uses in healthcare, said Stephen Friend, president and co-founder at Sage Bionetworks, a nonprofit organization in Seattle that promotes open science and patient engagement in the research process.

A second use "is that for any one person, if you have them take the thousands of dimensions of data ... you can end up building a personalized classifier that's allowing you to track that individual," he said. Perhaps, more importantly, that setup also allows them to track themselves, he added.

Let us know what you think about the story and healthcare big data; email Kristen Lee, news writer, or find her on Twitter @Kristen_Lee_34.

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