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Big data in healthcare: Worth the risk?

Analytics has been the driving force behind many business decisions, particularly with the rise of big data. Organizations are increasingly finding value in the information they collect, leading to an ever-expanding volume of data to manage. However, it is important to keep business goals in mind to avoid collecting data simply for the sake of having more data. As consultants David Kibbe and Vince Kuraitis noted in a post for The Healthcare Blog, it may be beneficial to start by optimizing the use of small data before moving to more complex initiatives.

Healthcare and other highly regulated industries face unique challenges when it comes to big data. The information they store offers a lucrative payload for cybercriminals, heightening the risk presented by computer security incidents. Kibbe and Kuraitis warned healthcare organizations against buying into the big data hype without first forming realistic objectives and understanding the risks presented by centralizing sensitive information.

"What we’re recommending is that physician groups take stock of their existing sources of data and information, look for ways to inexpensively extend the value of their current EHR investments for analytical resources, and learn from the literature and their peers about what relatively low tech, high touch, data-driven interventions have been successful in care management," they wrote. "Before you invest in big data systems, see what small data systems can accomplish, and then plan accordingly to fill the gaps."

As Kibbe and Kuraitis suggested, there may be significant benefits to evaluating existing systems and optimizing those before investing in entirely new platforms. They suggested, for example, that healthcare providers can focus on sets of information that are able to provide the most value. For example, analyzing data on high-risk patients has a high probability of improving quality and efficiency.

Hospitals pushing for big data
Despite the consultants' words of caution, many in the healthcare industry are moving forward with big data initiatives. Part of the reason for the increased adoption, according to Becker's Hospital Review columnist Kathleen Roney, is the proliferation of electronic health records. While EHRs allow for greater efficiency, they have also facilitated data collection.

As with any emerging technology, there are risks, but Roney highlighted several cases in which big data played a critical role in improving operations. For example, NorthShore University Health System in Illinois adopted a predictive analytics platform to identify patients that may carry Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA). According to Ari Robicsek, vice president of clinical and quality informatics at NorthShore, the organization was able to identify 90 percent of MRSA carriers.

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