Big data could mean big savings in health care – but here’s what has to happen first

Properly exploiting big data in health care could mean up to $450 billion in savings health care organizations and consumers according to a recent report from consulting firm McKinsey. But don’t get too excited yet – that data-optimized future isn’t just going to fall in our laps.

An abundance of newly available information — from research and development data aggregated by pharmaceutical companies to digitized patient records to recently-released health information from the federal government and other public sources — combined with new technology has the potential to transform health. But, according to the report, to really “jujitsu” that data (as the country’s CTO Todd Park likes to say), the industry may need to shift its thinking and scale some obstacles first.

“Stakeholders will only benefit from big data if they take a more holistic, patient-centered approach to value, one that focuses equally on health-care spending and treatment outcomes,” McKinsey’s report said.

To do that, the analysis laid out a few guidelines, including:

  • encouraging patients to take more active steps to improve their health
  • developing an integrated approach to care in which all caregivers have access to the same information
  • selecting health care providers based on skill sets, not job titles (for example, having nurses perform tasks traditionally doctor-required duties)
  • looking for ways to improve value while improving care quality (for example through systems that tie provider reimbursement to patient outcomes)
  • identifying new and innovative approaches to treatment and care delivery

With those approaches, McKinsey estimates that the use of big data could save health care stakeholders $300 to $450 billion in health care costs, or 12 to 17 percent of the $2.6 trillion baseline in U.S. health-related spending.

Already, big companies and emerging startups are leading the way in the smart use of data. At GigaOM’s recent Structure: Data conference, Aetna’s head of innovation Michael Palmer talked about how the company is using data to prevent diabetes and heart attacks. Startup Asthmapolis (which this week raised $5 million) is using GPS data collected via sensors attached to inhalers to help individuals, physicians and public health officials uncover asthma-related patterns.