Big data.


There, I said it. I was hoping that it wouldn't come to this and I could just ride out the hype machine, but as with so many other trends and catch phrases, I ultimately had to fall in line. I'm not happy about, just like I wasn't thrilled about "bending the cost curve," which I probably referenced half a million times between 2010 and early 2012 (I haven't succumb to all of society's pressures though. I still cherish my flip phone!)

You know as well as I do that it is nearly impossible to go more than five minutes at a health care conference (or likely any meeting) without someone uttering the term, "big data." It is nearly ubiquitous. I'm still not entirely clear on what big data means, partly because I think people are using it in different ways. So when in doubt, turn to Wikipedia, which defines big data this way: "a loosely-defined term used to describe data sets so large and complex that they become awkward to work with using on-hand database management tools. Difficulties include capture, storage, search, sharing, analysis, and visualization. The trend to larger data sets is due to the additional information derivable from analysis of a single large set of related data, as compared to separate smaller sets with the same total amount of data, allowing correlations to be found to spot business trends, prevent diseases, combat crime."

A lot of that is still Greek to me, save for that last sentence — "allowing correlations to be found to spot business trends, prevent diseases, combat crime."

Health care entities, with the vast amount of data sitting at their fingertips, should be perfectly positioned to tap into their servers, create algorithms and map out plans to improve community health and reduce inefficiencies. The McKinsey Global Institute in a report last year suggested that, by using big data "creatively and effectively," U.S. health care entities could "create more than $300 billion in value every year. Two-thirds of that would be in the form of reducing U.S. healthcare expenditure by about 8 percent."

Unfortunately, as with so many other innovative business practices, health care is late to the table (can we still really be talking about standards and interoperability for electronic health records?). Forbes had a really interesting interview with Alexandra Drane, founder and chief visionary officer of Eliza Corp., a Danvers, Mass., data analytics and tech firm, on the subject of big data and how health care organizations can better target information to people and populations. "One of the most important consequences of access to data is that health organizations can no longer ignore the reality of people's lives," she said. "For a long time, the health care space felt that if it educated people, they would act accordingly. But when you begin to amass large amounts of data about real behavior by individuals in the ‘wild,' you discover things that are not explained by traditional economic theories. Guess what? Humans aren't rational. We are extraordinarily complicated. That makes it difficult for health organizations to influence behavior if all they're using are traditional means built around old-fashioned assumptions."

While it may be playing catch up, the health care industry is beginning to understand how to harness the power of big data. Doing so will be especially important as we see more consolidation, more collaboration and more attempts to build or mirror integrated delivery networks. Even the feds are jumping on the bandwagon. CMS on Tuesday announced the creation of the Office of Information Products and Data Analytics. Agency officials made the announcement at the ultra hip D.C. event, Health Datapalooza (eat your heart out, Red Hot Chili Peppers). "Under OIPDA, the development, management, use, and dissemination of data and information resources will become one of CMS's core functions" and "will be a key tool in the agency's evolution from a fee-for-service based payer to a value-based purchaser of care," a press release stated. CMS processes 1.3 billion claims a year, so talk about big data.

But one note of caution before we all start brushing up on our Excel skills — remember the ultimate end user — the patient. We shouldn't be producing data for data's sake. Or, as Victor Sidel, co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, so eloquently put it: "Statistics are people with tears washed away."