Healthcare Data Analytics: What Would Francis Bacon Think?

Photo: Francis Bacon, Biography.com, 2013
Photo: Francis Bacon, Biography.com, 2013

There have been a lot of articles lately about how big data is going to revolutionize business, particularly the healthcare industry. Hospitals are going to be able to record, access and analyze exponentially more data than they could in the past, but instead of easing fears of data paralysis, analytics vendors seem set on creating angst. Bad strategy, for two reasons.

First of all, “the sky is falling” won’t help them sell, because few businesses enjoy being revolutionized. Major changes in the way an industry conducts business are usually not comfortable or pleasant – ask Best Buy how it feels about mobile retail, or ask how Tower Records feels about digital music distribution. The last thing a business owner wants is a market shift that’s going to radically and rapidly change their comfortable way of doing things.

Second, the storyline demonstrates a lack of understanding of data. For most industries, including healthcare, big data is not a revolution – it’s an evolution, allowing businesses to do what they already do better and faster. Doctors and hospitals have been using data and empirical observation to improve patient outcomes since the scientific method was established 400 hundred years ago. Big data doesn’t fundamentally change that premise; it just provides doctor and researchers with (exponentially) more information to work with.

Imagine that the philosopher Francis Bacon, one of the figureheads of the scientific revolution, could travel to a modern hospital and have access to all the benefits big data provides. Though the tools would be radically different, Bacon would essentially be following the same process as he laid out in his 1620 work, Novus Organum Scientiarum: gathering data, isolating variables and testing hypotheses. The changes big data is making for healthcare are differences in degree, not in kind.

It’s important to tell the story of big data in a positive way – rather than focusing on how it’s going to shake up and revolutionize businesses, vendors should emphasize how big data gives users access to a quantity and quality of information that past scientists could only imagine. Access to and study of this data makes it easier for doctors, insurers and hospital administrators to create better strategies and improve their operations.

Think about what WellPoint is looking to do in the healthcare space with IBM’s Watson supercomputer. By using the Jeopardy! winning machine’s incredible analysis capabilities to compile, analyze and make accessible unprecedented amounts of medical data, Wellpoint hopes that Watson will help doctors and insurers make more informed decisions, from choosing treatment options to accurately assessing risk.

This is what big data really is: another tool that gives healthcare professionals access to information that they can use to improve patient outcomes, lower costs and reduce waste. The introduction of the scientific method was a revolution that changed the central processes of healthcare; big data analytics are just the next evolutionary step. This difference may seem purely semantic, but as Lena Boroditsky of Stanford University’s Department of Psychology argued in this paper, these seemingly minor narrative changes can have a big difference on how a product is perceived.

Big data analytics are a remarkable and important new discipline that allows healthcare providers and insurers to access, manage and evaluate more information, leading to better informed research and improved patient outcomes.  They’re the next step in more than 400 years of scientific thought; Mr. Bacon would be impressed.

Zach Pearson is a Consultant at Greenough. Follow him on Twitter: @zach_p_pearson