Big data, digital tools are great, but building their ecosystem is 'where the rubber meets the road’

Speaking at the Big Data & Healthcare Analytics Forum in Boston, University of Texas System's Dr. Lynda Chin stressed the importance of connecting new technologies in addressing healthcare's failings.
By Dave Muoio
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The advent of big data and various connected health devices promise countless advantages to the healthcare industry. As facilitators of the personalized health movement, each represents an opportunity to extend care beyond the doctor’s office and into the realms of genomic insights and social or behavioral influences on health, Dr. Lynda Chin, executive director of real-world education, detection and intervention at the University of Texas System, said today at the Big Data and Healthcare Analytics Forum in Boston.

On their own, however, these groundbreaking tools do little to address the industry’s broadest issues — wide disparities in care and costs, reliance on provider-centric care models, rampant data silos, broad monetary and logistical inefficiencies, and countless other areas in need of improvement.

“There are a lot of things that we can actually imagine technology can solve. We can think about this mobile cloud and technology that changes the way we can engage patients, and we already can help them be more participatory … in self care, self management,” Chin said during a talk at the event.

“But that’s where we come into a problem. We can imagine a lot of the tools can be developed, and oftentimes we just think about what the tool can do, what the technology can do. … We need to go beyond just saying ‘innovation means we’ve got to come up with new products.’ It’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient.”

If these tools are to have value, industry players will need to consider how their implementation will affect workflow, or how they will be able to positively change the behaviors of both patient and provider, Chin said. However, adopting these kinds of practices at an industry level and lashing them together as a full ecosystem is really going to be “where the rubber meets the road” for big data and precision medicine.

“What we need is something to innovate at the system level. We need something to help us facilitate this — not just having those technology solutions but having a framework, a model, that allows us to more easily integrate this into a workflow, a plug-and-play system or model that helps us integrate it into the workflow,” she said. “We need to consider the rest of the world, where the patients are, but what that means is we need to figure out how to connect, because the last thing we need is more fragmentation.

“We need to be able to connect all of this into a common infrastructure, and if we had that data flow freely across these enterprises — from the traditional healthcare facility to the virtual healthcare space — then we can imagine being able to guide the patients and offer them the right care, at the right time, at the right price.”

Chin said that achieving such a network would likely require a single party to act as the “convener” of numerous different providers and services, a role that she and other colleagues took on in their own small-scale stab at such an ecosystem: Project Diabetes Obesity Control. Recently described in an NEJM Catalyst article, the connected data and service ecosystem looked to address chronic disease at the community level and relied on a number of cross-industry partnerships — PricewaterhouseCoopers’ DoubleJump Interchange for a common infrastructure, AT&T’s secure data networks for privacy and security, Walmart’s retail locations for community level engagement and Fitbit’s activity tracker devices, to name a few.

The result, Chin said, was a “digital freeway” with the advantage of data fluidity across the continuity of care, and the rough framework for a macro-scale effort that could bring digital tools and precision medicine to its full potential.

“We are specifically making a case for and highlighting the critical roles of a convener,” Chin and colleagues wrote in NEJM Catalyst. “With new technology waves cycling every 12 to 18 months and with large and small digital health technology companies appearing and disappearing, this ecosystem model can bring order to chaos for health care providers and patients, as well as increase the likelihood that health technology innovations will benefit patients who have the greatest needs. … We have shared our experience and progress to date in order to motivate other public institutions, foundations, and nonprofit organizations to step forward and take on the role of convener — not to advance a specific digital product or service, but to bring the whole continuum of care to patients by tapping into diverse public and private efforts.”