Hurdles to big data use in healthcare more social than technical

Are the real hurdles to using big data in healthcare social and not technical? A report authored by Gina Neff, a professor in the department of communication at the University of Washington in Seattle argues just that, saying that big data won't cure us because although data-intensive modeling has immense potential, figuring out how to use it is a bigger challenge.

"The ways in which health technology innovators have talked about the power of data neglects key aspects of the social interoperability or integration of data into health solutions," Neff's report says. "How will such data be integrated into care providers work practices; through the complex routines of clinics and hospitals; and into existing legal, social, political and economic frameworks?"

Questions of social interoperability must be solved before anything else, Neff argues. Until then, the risks of big data will outweigh the benefits. Applying cutting-edge research to existing practices and healthcare organizations is hard because of entrenched policies and traditions.

Also, big data solutions are not yet connected to care, according to Neff. "Calling traces of digital behavior or personal histories data masks bigger questions," she says. "[D]ata for whom and what purposes; data when and data why? Information useful for the online marketer is not necessarily useful for the patient or clinician."

Currently, the bridges just aren't there to connect data to the social worlds of healthcare, but Neff thinks the guidelines set out by the National Coordinator for Health IT go a long way in leading others for translational data science.

Starting small at big organizations--using electronic health record analytics to reduce readmission rates--works better for larger organizations, she says

Five things are necessary in any push toward big data in healthcare, Neff concludes:

  1. Real conversations on data privacy
  2. Design that matters for clinical care
  3. Design that matters for patients, not just consumers
  4. New models for patient-doctor communication and how doctors can bring expertise to data
  5. Policy that embraces technological innovation

''Policy makers, advocates, and technology designers alike must remember that the solutions for the problems of health information innovation are as much social as they are technical," she says.

At the CHIME CIO forum in Scottsdale, Ariz., last week, former National Coordinator for Health IT Farzad Mostashari, M.D., took the stage and spoke bluntly about the barriers to care transformation and the limits of healthcare technology. He also harped on the importance of interoperability.

"We've been shackled," he said. "Trying to change a system like healthcare? It's really hard. And when there are forces that mitigate against that change in so many different ways, that are keeping the status quo in place, it becomes nearly impossible."

There are others in the healthcare industry that can work on these problems in their own way, Mostashari said. But what's the exciting thing about working on it with health IT as a tool? "What we have is something that gets better. Technology gets better," he said.

To learn more:
- read the report

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