What’s the big deal about big data?

Paul Solman Big Data data analytics health care

To kick off the final panel of the Global Pediatric Innovation Summit + Awards 2014, moderator Paul Solman (above), business and economics correspondent for PBS Newshour, launched straight into the question: What are we in healthcare doing with big data, and what should we be doing with it?

John Brownstein, PhD, director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Computational Epidemiology Group and co-founder of HealthMap, said big data has had a significant positive effect on his group’s work. By incorporating social media into their data sets, he noted, they have been able to draw conclusions about large-scale infectious diseases in a matter of weeks.

Sachin Jain, MD, MBA, chief medical Information and innovation officer at Merck, took the role of devil’s advocate, making contrarian points about the “big data revolution.” “We’re not doing enough small data,” he said. “Everyone’s talking about predictive analytics, but they’re not doing basic analytics at the point of care.”

“Why can’t big data inform patient care at the point of care?” retorted panelist Joy Keeler Tobin, chief of health informatics at MITRE. She went on to cite a few studies conducted with data from Boston Children’s that could potentially enhance the patient experience: “We looked at patient identification and safety, and identified cases where a prescription was initially assigned to the wrong patient. This allowed us to work with the software developer and figure out a way to prevent these errors. We also discovered that many inpatients had monitors that were clinically unnecessary.”

Jain maintained that, “It’s not just about saying ‘let’s have a big data strategy.’ Let the methods follow the target.” He said we should take a close look at what is going on in the hospital, identify the problems that need fixing, and solve those problems in the most appropriate way.

“Hoarding data for a competitive advantage is not pro-patient, it’s pro-institution,” Jain added.

The FDA’s new open source initiative, OpenFDA.gov, is going against this conventional model of data ownership. Taha Kass-Hout, MD, the FDA’s chief health informatics officer, says OpenFDA.gov aims to make the public FDA records more accessible to everyone.

He also made an important observation about the whole concept of “big data:” “It’s not just about size and volume. Linkages are more important than the size of that information.” He stressed that the value of big data lies in the complex new ways we are connecting various pieces of information.