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Management in Practice

Can Big Data Make Healthcare More Effective?

The alluring promise of big data is to make sense of the innumerable messy and complex decisions made by the world's consumers and provide clear guidance for improved operations, marketing, and performance. How close that promise is to reality varies greatly from industry to industry. A panel at the Yale School of Management considered the challenges and opportunities in using big data to improve healthcare.

The healthcare system functions, at best, as a series of interconnected islands. Physicians may consult journals for the latest advancements in medicine, but once they pass out of the medical school system, the network of knowledge they’re able to consult on a daily basis begins to shrink.

The advent of big data could change that. By tapping into the vast amount of information collected each day in doctor’s offices, hospitals, and labs, healthcare is said to be entering a new age where the best methods for treating illness are analyzed and disseminated far and wide. “This is an exciting time,” said Dr. Harlan Krumholz, the Harold J. Hines, Jr. Professor of Medicine at the Yale School of Management and director of the Yale-New Haven Hospital Center for Outcomes Research and Evaluation. “I don’t think in 10 years we’re going to practicing the way we are now.”

Krumholz spoke at Yale SOM’s Evans Hall on February 21 as part of a discussion on the impact of big data on healthcare, sponsored by the Yale Healthcare Ecosystem, Yale Health & Life Sciences Club, and the YHLC Healthcare Case Competition. The other panelists were Dr. Paul Taheri, deputy dean of the Yale School of Medicine and CEO of the Yale Medical Group; Zack Cooper, assistant professor of public health and economics at Yale; and Sarah Constantin, vice president of research and analytics at Metamed and a PhD candidate in mathematics at Yale.

Krumholz, Cooper, and Constantin were optimistic that big data could help healthcare become more efficient and effective, albeit with a lot of work from all parties. Taheri, a practicing physician, pointed out that he and his colleagues already feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities of treating patients, keeping up with advancements, and processing all the paper required by the job. “Physicians are being driven harder and harder every day—anything that influences the workflow, they’re not interested in,” he said.

But Cooper asserted that the short-term burden would be worth it. Analyzing the vast amount of healthcare data in existence—roughly 30 times greater than all the words ever spoken by humans—would allow healthcare professionals to tackle the core challenges facing the industry, he said—including exploding costs. “Where does the money flow?” he asked. “We spend $3 trillion a year in the U.S. Where is this money going around the system? Where is it bleeding out? What represents value and what doesn’t? Big data can inform this.”