The Forces Unlocking Value From Healthcare Data (And Those That Restrain It)

Paddy Padmanabhan, MBA
DECEMBER 14, 2017
Paddy Padmanabhan,IBM watson,hca news,artificial intelligenceThe unlocking of insights from data will be the key to creating value in healthcare delivery. According to Josh Liberman, PhD, executive director of research, development, and dissemination at Sutter Health, while healthcare has unprecedented access to data, the challenge lies in translating the data into value.

In my book The Big Unlock, I discuss the emerging technologies and analytical methods that will enable healthcare enterprises to harness data and help technology firms grow their digital health businesses. Among these, the most important today are cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI), and blockchain.

Cloud computing has become mainstream as the exploding volumes of data from a vast and dizzying array of sources have outstripped the information technology (IT) infrastructural abilities of even the largest healthcare enterprises. The analyst firm Frost & Sullivan estimates that revenues for cloud services providers in healthcare will touch $10 billion in 2021, driven primarily by the need to store the exponentially increasing volumes of healthcare data.

In the space of a few years, cloud computing has gone from being just another way to dial up storage capacity on demand to being the default option for significant portions of enterprise IT workloads, and for delivering all manner of technology solutions and services. Firms such as Amazon and Microsoft have built in individual industry requirements (such as Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act-compliance) into their cloud computing platforms, releasing developers and enterprises to focus on creating value-added, technology-led experiences, sitting on robust and reliable computing infrastructures.

No topic gets more attention today than AI. So much so that there is a mild backlash against the rampant “AI-washing” of every analytics tool. This is a holdover from the “big data” wave of a few years ago, which morphed into predictive analytics, and has since manifested as AI. To be sure, AI has the power to transform the way healthcare is delivered today, by allowing clinicians to do more, intervene in more focused ways, and save lives.

IBM Watson Health’s cognitive computing platform is making a significant difference in oncology by enabling researchers and clinicians to keep up with the rapid increase in knowledge in their fields. According to the annual Internet Trends Report by Mary Meeker of the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, the volume of medical information is set to double every 3.5 years today, from 50 years in 1950. In an era of overload and burnout brought on by onerous electronic health record (EHR) systems, AI and cognitive computing solutions can increase physician productivity, increase treatment effectiveness, and improve quality of life for physicians. Studies are also now beginning to show a high level of concordance—the degree to which a physician’s treatment recommendations match those of an AI platform—for certain cancer types. The potential for this to dramatically alter our acceptance of technology in the most complex of healthcare situations is literally life-changing.

Blockchain technologies are the new shiny toys for 2018. We are in the early stages, with a handful of emerging use cases, primarily around secure sharing of patient medical information.   

Despite the forces accelerating the unlocking of insights from data, several forces are restraining it. The most critical barrier is the interoperability among healthcare IT systems, with dominant electronic health records vendors such as Epic and Cerner maintaining a lock on patient medical records. In my book, I refer to them as the Custodians. These dominant healthcare IT providers control access to the data and clinical workflows, requiring emerging technology solution providers to rely on access to the underlying records in order to build the digital health platforms of the future.

Another restraint is the ongoing concern around privacy and security of protected health information. Along with the scourge of ransomware, these concerns will collectively dampen the enthusiasm for bold experimentation in a sector long known to be conservative. Decades of insulation from the naked forces of market competition and fear of liabilities from data breaches is a potent combination that can make the digital transformation of healthcare painfully slow.

In other words, the readiness of healthcare enterprises for emerging technology solutions remains in question. However, a growing number of pioneering healthcare institutions—notably Cleveland Clinic, where CIO Ed Marx is driving change through the use of newer platforms such as IBM Watson Health—is an indication that the sector is ready to embrace the future.

Healthcare is no different from other sectors when it comes to a lag between the emergence of new technologies and their widespread adoption. There is a case to be made that healthcare executives need to proceed cautiously with unlocking insights from data with new—and often unproven—technologies due to risks associated with patient safety, privacy protection, and data breaches. The good news is that there is a vibrant ecosystem of emerging technology solution providers that is ready and willing to assist healthcare in its journey toward a digital future.

Paddy Padmanabhan is the author of The Big Unlock: Harnessing Data and Growing Digital Health Businesses in a Value-Based Care Era (available on Amazon). He is the CEO of Damo Consulting Inc, a healthcare growth advisory firm based in Chicago. You can follow him @paddypadmanabha and connect with him on https://www.linkedin.com/in/paddypadmanabhan99/.

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