Digital Initiative Summit: Freeing Patient Data to Enable Innovation

It's difficult to have innovation without data—which is one reason why the health care industry in the United States is too expensive. One remedy: Make the patient the customer.
by Christian Camerota

Patients are not actually the customers in the United States health care system, a fact largely to blame for the dearth of communication and data sharing between providers, according to experts at a recent Harvard Business School conference.

On the upside, a lot of thinking and effort is going on to remedy the information-sharing glut that is slowing health care innovation and harming patient care, according to panelists discussing "Digital Health: Freeing Patient Data to Enable Innovation" at the Digital Initiative Summit held March 30.

This problem will not be fixed until providers are offered proper incentives for standardizing and sharing the information they collect. Even the industry's brightest minds and hardest workers have yet to definitively determine what those incentives ought to be.

"Consumers don't pay for health insurance," said panelist Mina Hsiang when asked about why customer experience is so poor across the health care industry. "Employers do. So there's no real driver for quality."

Hsiang (HBS MBA 2010), a health data advisor for the White House's US Digital Service and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, was one of three panelists taking part in the discussion, along with Dr. Maulik Majmudar, a former cardiologist and now associate director of the Healthcare Transformation Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital and chief clinical officer and founder of Quanttus, and Corbin Petro, president of ElevateHealth Solutions and former chief clinical officer of Commonwealth of Massachusetts's Department of Medicaid.

The discussion was led by Harvard Business School Associate Professor Karim Lakhani, who urged the audience to dig into the severe bottlenecks of health care data, as well as how both government and entrepreneurship might help remove impediments in the future.

In mapping those bottlenecks, Hsiang cited difficulty in moving data around because of legal constraints and high costs with low rewards. Petro added the issue of timeliness--even if data was flowing, it would often be difficult to implement at the point of service. Majmudar listed difficulties translating data into practice, something he has experienced and is trying to address in his transition from practitioner to health care entrepreneur.

"About 85 percent of practice today is driven by anecdotal practice, not big data," Majmudar said. "We still don't systematically organize our data and translate it into something actionable. We're still at the stage where we're building infrastructure for it and, unfortunately, too often it's garbage in, garbage out."

Lahkani asked panelists where they believe the best opportunities lie for those with career aspirations of mending information gap in health care. Majmudar, whose own company is working at the intersection of health data and wearables, pushed future innovators to focus on ideas that will have measurable impacts on people's health. Hsiang also pointed to implementation, with a focus on picking out niches in the industry that have obvious inefficiencies and solving those directly. Corbin turned back to the problem of customer service.

"I'd pay attention to hospital systems and how they engage with payers," she said. "Providers are responsible for 80 percent of the health care costs and they're not being engaged and given incentive to change. I don't know what tool or technology could be used for that, but anything that improves communication between and with providers, that kind of standardization, would be huge."

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About the Author

Christian Camerota is assistant director of communications at Harvard Business School.

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    • kathryn roy
    • managing partner, precision thinking
    Providers and solution vendors are incented - to make sharing data hard so providers can't switch vendors and patients can't switch providers or go outside the system. It will take a stick, not a carrot, for them to change.
    • Donald Hardin
    • Consumer, Home
    As a consumer this is incredibly frustrating. I'm am now reduced to keeping detailed notes on my visits and follow-up calls with different Health Care Providers. I also keep copies of all my lab tests and provide them when needed as the process for forwarding and copying tests to different providers takes too much time (follow-up phone calls, etc.). I think you could consider a different approach and leverage the consumer as the collector and disseminator of information. How about putting this detailed information in an application (e.g. Apple Health) running on an iPhone or even Apple Watch. That way, as I visit different providers, I can release and retrieve information at the time of the visit. Encryption could be done through devices such as fingerprint readers on the consumer device.
    • Aim
    • DSV, KOC
    I agree with Donald Hardin,

    Without patients (customers) health care (service providers) would not exist. It is patients who should have access to their sickness (products) which maybe purchased in one form or another. So, via digitally stored information (product) on cell phone it will be up to the patient how to use his newly acquired product.

    This way the employers and all the other providers are eliminated out of the equation giving full responsibility and control to the people who actually bought the products.

    Better yet, should the healthcare be late in adopting this approach I believe this is a perfect business opportunity to code a software and let the user start inputting every detail from day one of the visit to a service provider. Does not need to perfect from start.