Whenever I turn on the television, I see the same thing.


I'm not referring to inane content, although there's plenty of that, I suppose. I'm thinking of the advertisements. All I see are people with gray hair telling me about retirement plans and medications to cure what ails me. (And such a huge variety of things could be ailing me, according to these ads.) 

What conclusion do I draw from this? Somehow I doubt that every advertisement on TV is for these types of products; surely, bubble gum, toys, cosmetics, and beer are being promoted vigorously on TV screens. No, I’m forced to conclude that analysis has shown that the typical viewer of the television programs I watch is either an overworked hypochondriac or a person approaching the golden years.

At first I thought, "What a mistake. They've got the wrong guy." But then I realized that my wife and I do spend a bit more time lately talking about where we might retire, and I do spend more time in the doctor's office than I used to. Big data has me pegged.

In our society, we exist in a web of data and analytics. Everywhere we go, and almost whatever we do, data about us are being gathered and transformed into information that allows entities to predict our behavior and serve our needs based on our demographic makeup and our proclivities. We shop for a jacket on one website, and a promotion for a similar jacket shows up on the next website we visit. We download an app about woodworking, and ads for home-improvement stores appear on our streaming music service. The most popular products in our neighborhood grocery store migrate to the most accessible position on the shelves.

Health care has been slow to adopt big data. But predictive analytics, mass customization, and similar approaches will be crucial for a healthcare system that seeks to reduce waste, improve quality, enhance patient loyalty, and improve the health of a defined population. 

In this month's hfm cover story, “The Big Deal About Big Data,” authors Keith D. Moore, Katherine Eyestone, and Dean C. Coddington tell us what leaders of healthcare organizations have to say about their big data strategies. The goals are bold, from capturing hospital, medical group, and payer data for population health management to customizing care protocols based on a patient’s genetic makeup. However, these leaders were quick to point out the challenges to reaching these goals, including the need to gather necessary data, translate it into actionable information, and invest in the necessary infrastructure. 

According to these leaders, the question is not whether to embark on big data, but how. As one leader put it, “The future is in making this investment; if we don’t, we won’t be here.”

And as important as it may be for a television advertisement to show me the best plan to save for my retirement, that benefit is dwarfed by the societal benefits of better health at lower cost that could result from an effective application of big data by forward-looking healthcare organizations.

Publication Date: Thursday, August 01, 2013

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