From Doctors to Data: The New Face of Healthcare

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The data revolution has the potential to create new business opportunities across the economy.  But healthcare, perhaps more than any other sector, has the potential to be revolutionized by our growing capacity to collect, release, and analyze data of all kinds. A recent MIT Technology Review Business Report notes that venture capital firms have invested about $3 billion in healthcare IT since the start of 2013, and McKinsey & Company has valued U.S. healthcare data at more than $300 billion a year.

Healthcare is the largest private-sector industry in the U.S., employing roughly one-eighth of the U.S. workforce and accounting for 17 percent of GDP. Yet despite this massive investment of dollars and manpower, the quality and value of healthcare leaves much to be desired. A new Bloomberg ranking puts the U.S. far down on the list of 51 countries in terms of healthcare efficiency: We rank number 44, just behind the Dominican Republic and ahead of Bulgaria. It’s an industry ripe for data-driven innovation – one that can benefit by using new kinds of data and analysis to find better, more efficient treatments and to match patients to treatments more precisely for better outcomes.

A growing number of established healthcare businesses and startups are taking on this challenge, using data to address and improve every aspect of the healthcare system. They’re analyzing large collections of medical data to learn which types of treatments have the best outcomes in which situations, and ultimately to design more efficient and effective approaches to care. They’re developing systems to track patient care to reduce costs and medical errors. And they’re beginning to use a combination of patient records, public data, genetic studies, and other data to develop more personalized approaches to medical treatment.

These advances are coming about through an innovative kind of public-private collaboration. The U.S. government’s Open Data Policy, established in May 2013, mandates the release of most federal agency data in public, usable forms. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has recently released increasing amounts of data on Medicare payments, on data collected by the Food and Drug Administration, and on other issues related to medical care and public health.  Government data, in turn, can be combined with data from scientific research, other healthcare studies, or patient records to help develop new insights and approaches to patient treatment

The Governance Lab (GovLab) at New York University has been conducting a study,  the Open Data 500, to identify and analyze more than 500 U.S.-based companies that use openly available government data as a key business resource.  The results show a number of companies that are using healthcare data in powerful new ways.

Several of these companies use data to make it easier to find, access, and use high-quality healthcare services. Aidin, for example, helps hospital patients find better post-hospital care with in-depth information to help patients and their families choose their best options. iTriage, started by an emergency room doctor and recently acquired by Aetna, lets you use a website or your smartphone to log in your symptoms, get quick advice on the kind of care you need, and get a list of nearby facilities that can help – a potential lifesaver for travelers in an unfamiliar area.  And a number of new companies focus on low cost as well as high quality, including Accordion Health and Karmadata. The startup Clear Health Costs bills itself as “your source for health-care prices.” In addition to using Medicare data and pricing surveys, Clear Health Costs gathers data on healthcare prices from volunteers.

Several companies are finding ways to personalize medical advice and tools for consumers. One of the newest companies, which was officially launched on September 23, is Iodine, a San-Francisco-based startup. Iodine was founded to help improve healthcare by personalizing it for each individual. The company analyzes large healthcare datasets and puts that data together with information on an individual’s medical situation and background to provide individualized healthcare guidance.

New kinds of data and analysis can improve the science of medicine itself. Even the best doctors can’t be expected to synthesize all the possible useful information about an individual patient with the entire medical literature on his or her condition to come up with the best possible treatment.  That’s especially true as we’ve seen an explosion of genetic information, beginning with the Human Genome Project, that offers the promise of tailoring treatments to each individual’s genetic makeup. The price of sequencing a single person’s genes has plummeted from $100 million in 2001 to a few thousand dollars today. We’re heading into the era of pharmaco-genomics — using all this genomic data to tailor treatments to the individual more precisely and more effectively than ever before.

At the recent Health Datapalooza, an annual event to celebrate and promote the use of new kinds of health data, several speakers talked about the impact of the new data revolution. In a keynote speech, Vinod Khosla, a leading tech venture capitalist and the former CEO of Sun Microsystems, laid out his vision. Over the next decade or two, he said, “Data science will do more for medicine than all the biological sciences combined.”

Khosla argues that computers excel at analyzing data to predict the likely benefit that a procedure or treatment will have for a specific patient with a specific medical history. After 10 or 20 years of training by expert doctors, Khosla believes that computers will help us move from “the practice of medicine” to “the science of medicine.” The doctor will not have to be the data-analyst-in-chief, but will be able to help patients interpret what the data show and make good choices among their options in medical care.

That future may or may not come to be in the next decade or two. But whatever the speed and direction of progress, data-driven innovation is certain to change healthcare profoundly in the years ahead.

 Joel Gurin, a fellow of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, is a senior advisor at the GovLab where he directs the Open Data 500.