It's kind of easy to get excited about the prospective benefits of big data analysis, but a new report is likely to temper enthusiasm on the health care system's current readiness to turn those bits and bytes into effective population health management or other forms of improved patient care.

Yes, there is an increased ability to collect and combine large pools of health data to create new avenues to improve patient care, particularly in the area of population health.

But progress is going to be slow or spotty until the industry does a better job of collecting data in a standardized fashion, and uses more statistically sound approaches to analyzing clinical and cost data. Improved data sharing also is important.

A new report analyzing the current state of comparative effectiveness research included a section on big data that has implications for hospitals and health systems and their efforts to manage the health of populations.

The report, from the Network for Excellence in Health Innovation, suggests that hospitals, physicians, payers and other industry players need to work together so that big data collection and analysis is more useful.

"The time has come to start thinking about how to reach consensus across all of these groups so that we can make the most of this, and accelerate really useful findings that will improve patient care, and in that way, spur innovation," Thomas Hubbard, author of the report and vice president of policy research for NEHI, told me yesterday.

Currently, it's still rare for separate organizations to share data in such a way that it's actionable or scientifically valid without a lot of extra cleansing on the back end, according to the report, called "An Evolving Landscape: Comparative Effectiveness Research, Outcomes Research and Health Care Innovation."

Hubbard said the report's conclusions, while cautionary regarding the outlook for big data and innovation, aren't meant to paint a negative picture. "There are a series of collaborations under way right now that have the potential to really prompt new protocols, new guidelines, new standards of care out there," he said

Examples of that would include two organizations highlighted in the report: the High Value Healthcare Collaborative, a group of about 20 health systems sharing data and conducting joint analysis of common health care conditions with a high cost, and CancerLinQ, a health information technology real-time clinical decision-support system backed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

"We're clearly seeing stories every week, pretty much, of practitioners, clinical researchers or analysts, whether it’s in a hospital system or one of the professional societies, doing studies right now generating results that are clinically useful," Hubbard said.

Once the appropriate data collection, sharing and analysis methods are put in place on a broader scale, industry-wide progress can be achieved and big data excitement will be better justified.