Panel: "Big Data, Big Potential"

By Nirupa Galagedera

A distinguished group of professionals in health policy, health economics, and medicine engaged in an insightful discussion on information technology (IT) and its growing role in health care in WUHC’s Big Data Panel.

 From left to right: Dr. Hanson, Dr. Sochalski, and Dr. Town

From left to right: Dr. Hanson, Dr. Sochalski, and Dr. Town

The diversity of experience among the panelists represented how far-reaching the applications of big data can be. Dr. William Hanson, anesthesiologist, Professor of Anesthesiology and Critical Care, and Chief Medical Information Officer at Penn Medicine contributed useful information from a clinical standpoint. Dr. Julie Sochalski, Associate Professor of Nursing and former Director of the Division of Nursing and Principal Advisor for Health Workforce Policy at the Health Resources and Services Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, offered unique perspective from her time working under the Obama administration. Dr. Robert Town, Associate Professor of Health Care Management at the Wharton School and Co-Editor of the International Journal of Healthcare Finance and Economics presented an academic viewpoint of the future of big data.

“Big data” refers to the management and analysis of large, and thus complex, sets of information. It is concerned with volume, velocity, and variety of data. In the medical field, implementation of big data has the potential to reduce inefficiency, and thus reduce costs. Big data has great potential to be employed as a predictive tool to avert unfavorable circumstances. For example, large-scale data analysis could reduce hospital readmission rates, determine criteria for sepsis (inflammation of the entire body) to lower its fatality rates, and eliminate potential harmful side effects of drugs. Greater motive for pharmaceutical companies and health care providers to record their activity also increases transparency.

Many roadblocks still stand in the way of full acceptance of big data by health professionals. Dr. Sochalski pointed out that many clinicians were not trained to use information technology, and so they are reluctant to embrace it. She says that first clinicians need to be included in the design of big data projects so that they are more willing to implement them. Incentives would also be nice, Sochalski noted. Dr. Hanson drew attention to the spectrum between human intuition and big data. He posits that in certain situations clinicians will need to become comfortable choosing what the data suggests over what years of hands-on medical care delivery hints at. This decision he says will not be easy, but may be important for big data to reach its full potential. In fact, the role of big data in medicine has been much smaller than that of big data in other industries. Dr. Town contended that the limited availability of data, in many cases due to privacy concerns, and the very human aspect of medicine that stems from patient-physician interactions have slowed big data’s impact on health care.

The panelists acknowledge that with the intersection of information technology and health care still premature of its maximum potential impact on health care, it could still benefit from the knowledge and innovation of young minds.