David Blumenthal: It's time to treat digital health data like a natural resource

Physicians may be feeling the burden of EHR data entry, but they are contributing to a broader ecosystem that will serve as the foundation for long-term medical innovation—as long as that ecosystem is protected. 

It may be time to start thinking of the vast collections of digital health data as a natural resource, wrote David Blumnethal, M.D., president of the Commonwealth Fund, in the Annals of Internal Medicine. And like most natural resources, those data sources need to be closely protected and nurtured to ensure they are used to advance medical care.

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He highlighted several of challenges facing the healthcare industry in this regard, including the imbalanced burden that providers face in collecting and securing patient data without a notable payoff, especially compared to the profits that are realized among private digital health companies. A recent study showed doctors are spending three times as much time in front of computers compared to patients, adding to clerical workloads for physicians.

Likewise, patients need to have an ownership stake in data sharing, perhaps in the form of some compensation.

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Perhaps most importantly, the long-term impacts of tapping into these growing data lakes are still unknown, according to the former national coordinator. For as much good that could come out of access to digital health data, there’s likely to be a substantial level of harm.

“The need to protect consumers from poorly designed, unsafe, invalid, or even fraudulent new electronic health products will inevitably create the need for new regulatory regimes,” he wrote.

Data sharing has been integral to new partnerships, including community-led population health efforts. Meanwhile, providers still face significant barriers to collecting and using patient-generated data as the industry looks to balance security and interoperability.