Healthcare Data Should Help, Not Hinder, the Human Endeavor

179172603I’m envisioning a young woman with a strange rash on her hands. She visits two different doctors. With the first doctor, she shows him the rash and describes the itching. She explains that’s she’s tried different over-the-counter creams to no avail. The doctor looks up from the computer on the desk long enough to see red patches on her hands and wrists. He writes her a prescription for X. She fills the prescription and uses it for a few days, but the rash persists.

She returns to the same clinic a week later and sees a different provider. Again, she shows the doctor her rash and explains the itchiness. The provider enters this information into the computer, but then starts asking the woman a series of questions. What’s her age? Her occupation? The woman answers that she is a first-year college student working in the food court at her university. The doctor continues the conversation and asking questions about the woman’s past, listening, and entering her health status data into the computer program. Through the course of their conversation, the woman also becomes comfortable enough to reveal that she had congenital urinary tract problems as a child. The doctor knows that patients with congenital urinary tracts issues have a higher risk for certain allergic conditions. After a few more questions, the physician recognizes that the woman is part of a group of people likely to have a latex allergy, and the gloves she’s using for work are causing an allergic reaction.

Healthcare Technology In the Way

This is a relatively simple example of the use of data in healthcare and why it is important to capture and use that data correctly. This is actually nothing new. We’ve always had data, but we didn’t call it “data.” Instead, we called it “patient charts,” “lab results,” “X-ray results,” etc. Like any other surgeon, I can attest to the fact that ICUs and Operating Rooms were some of the most data-intensive places around before the development of sophisticated monitoring systems and EMRs. But now the context is different, and things are more complicated. We have technology that can do powerful analytics, showing us opportunities for decreasing costs or reducing variation in care.

I believe the importance of actionable data is vital in today’s healthcare environment, but I am also concerned about unintended consequences, as demonstrated with the story above about the young woman with the rash. We must insist that patients are seen as people, not data points, i.e. “covered lives.” Patients need know their doctor listens. Doctors in an environment that emphasizes quality, value, and improving patient outcomes are well on their way to providing the kind of care value-based reimbursement models will require. Using the technology at their disposal with this solid cultural base will pave the way for actionable data—data physicians can use to reduce waste and variation and improve patient outcomes.

Predictive Analytics to Support the Human Endeavor

Healthcare data needs to be a tool for building a stronger patient-physician relationship. Using predictive analytics, including the use of social-economic information, providers can be proactive in having the hard conversations.

Healthcare data can support the human endeavor. The patient-physician relationship comes first, followed by analytics to support that relationship. I don’t know all the answers about how that support will actually come about or what the future will look like. I do know that healthcare is full of caring, brilliant people and with the right technology, we can make a huge difference in the lives of many.

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