Healthcare needs a big data infusion

Aneesh Chopra

To improve medicine and health IT, we need a big heaping dose of data. That’s the takeaway from a conversation with Aneesh Chopra,  the former U.S. CTO and assistant to President Obama, at South by Southwest in Austin on Friday.

“Today’s healthcare information is locked away in a document — a person’s medical records — but how do you parse those documents?” Chopra asked. “The data architecture is wrong. The architecture should be built on data.”

Much as LinkedIn has managed to turn the resume from a document into many pieces of data that can be then searched, parsed and aggregated in new ways, a patient’s medical record should have that same granularity. And it will, in Chopra’s worldview. Chopra is now a senior advisor for healthcare strategy at The Advisory Board Company, which is focused on bringing the advances of technology to the medical realm.

Who will drive the healthcare IT change?

This will involve the government (some legislation has already been put in place), doctors, hospitals and consumers. However, in what will be a switch for many Valley startups, Chopra believes that the consumer is not going to be the big player in this transition. He scoffed at the idea of an empowered consumer who, armed with his medical data and treatment plans, assiduously follows through on everything asked of him.

Instead, it will be doctors and large caregiving organizations that help drive the adoption of healthcare IT. They, in turn, will be driven by monetary incentives that the government has written into laws. And there are still plenty of laws that will have to be written, such as those around privacy, which Chopra said is “the most important risk factor facing the industry.”

The opportunity for startups

Without getting too far into theories of privacy or the morass of government legislation already passed, here is Chopra’s advice to entrepreneurs who want to get involved in health IT on the ground floor.

  1. Introduce the consumer to his or her blue button: Even though the consumer isn’t going to play a huge role, Chopra believes app makers who can get consumers to download their own health data (in a manner similar to how veterans can download their service records in an open data format through a Blue Button) can find a niche. Once users connect their health data to some of their quantified health data or their food diaries or whatever they want, certain startups will have an opportunity.
  2. Get certified to make a change: Thanks to the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009, doctors can get paid for adopting technology, but in order to get paid, they have to both buy new tech and prove they use it meaningfully. This so-called “meaningful use” certification is managed by private companies, but startups or anyone can get certified in only a few areas, making it less daunting and expensive. Chopra was really excited about the modularity of the program, which allows developers to build apps for doctors that can be added on to existing software. The program will also help larger companies partner with startups. In 2011, the government paid out $2.5 billion in meaningful-use incentives, and 176,000 companies were certified.
  3. Read this article and reverse engineer the apps this guy built: No, really — that’s it. Because data is going to be a huge portion of individual medical records, and because the government is opening up other medical records, figuring out ways to mash those together to help reduce costs in the system will be immensely valuable. This is especially true because the government has passed legislation rewarding doctors who cut costs — as opposed to rewarding doctors who order expensive tests.

Finally, Chopra’s pretty dismissive of the idea that the Food and Drug Administration is a huge barrier for most startups trying to build innovative apps and even devices, such as the toothbrush I profiled last month. He pointed out that the FDA has brought several entrepreneurs in house to help it improve, and it has so far been taking a very light stance on apps as it attempts to understand what role they will play in medicine.

And if you don’t have an idea for the next hot startup, don’t worry. He’s pretty sure that in the coming years doctors are going to also need specialists who can help them deal with data, organize it and analyze it. Yup, that’s right — it’s yet another profession where data scientists will be in demand. Gotta go get that stats degree.

For more on the ways big data is changing the world, come to our Structure:Data event in New York on March 21 and 22.