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Health-IT early adopters well-poised for big-data advances in clinical medicine

Fred O'Connor | April 3, 2013
But the majority of US health providers are in smaller practices that have been slow to embrace electronic medical records

Vendors lack a financial incentive to add this functionality to their EHRs since they're already making profits on applications without these abilities. Adding data analysis functions means creating systems with greater interoperability and that threatens vendor revenue since it makes moving to another EHR system easier, he said.

But interoperability, which entails feeding standardized data that comes from a hospital's many departments into a single analysis platform, is essential for big data, said Weissberg.

"To get at that notion of big data, you need to take information from multiple data marts and systems that are very disparate and aren't built in an integrated way."

Hospital executives may not be eager to customize their EHR systems with data analysis modules since such additions can knock a customer off a vendor's standard upgrade cycle and result in multimillion-dollar upgrades, said Forrester vice president and principal analyst Craig Le Clair.

Instead, hospitals are turning to agile technologies, like mobile applications and tablets, to plug into their EHRs. These technologies are dedicated to the "$50 billion problems that we have in health care," like analyzing readmissions, he said.

Executives are also watching the bottom line and won't fund IT projects that lack a proven return on investment. Large data-analysis projects fall under this category, said Dr. Arnaout.

"You're asking folks, when they have no money, to take a chance on something that is unproven when they've got a lot of other things that are less sexy, but are proven," he said. "Right or wrong, unless you have a case study showing an ROI they're going to be watching their dollars."

Doctors too harbor doubts on data analysis' benefits although how they practice medicine -- analyzing data stored over time from a variety of sources and constantly updating it to develop an output based on certain parameters -- is how EHR data analysis would also function. Computers differ from humans in their ability to take all the data on a topic, keep it in memory indefinitely and generate outcome percentages with confidence values, Dr. Arnaout said.

"Providers don't think of going to a big-data-type interface on the computer because they haven't seen it even though they're that computer right now." And with doctors focused on treating patients they're not demanding this technology, he added.

Building systems that medical professionals can trust requires hiring people with a strong understanding of medicine and computer science. Doctors with coding skills may not write the program but knowledge of both fields can lead to software that generates clinical value, said Dr. Arnaout.

With software developers in strong demand across many industries, programmers are accepting positions at technology companies with lucrative salaries that exceed the compensation hospitals offer, he said.


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