Challenges exist, even as excitement grows for big data market

The move away from a fee-for-service reimbursement model and the arrival of promising new technology have created demand for big data in the healthcare industry, and technology giants like IBM, Apple, and Google are seeking to fill that void.

“As we move into a value-based world, data and analytics become critically important,” said Dr. Harry Greenspun, director of Deloitte's Center for Health Solutions. “A lot of data that healthcare needs is not the data that healthcare has.”

This is why some of the world's leading technology companies are upping their footprint in the competitive U.S. healthcare market. After decades of toiling mostly behind the healthcare scenes, IBM in 2015 formally launched the Watson Health business unit to commercialize cognitive computing in medicine, while Apple last year created ResearchKit, which seeks to help researchers gather data for clinical studies.

Salesforce in September launched a cloud product to help providers better care for their patients. Other leading data providers include Optum, which is owned by UnitedHealth Group, as well as Cerner and McKesson, which market electronic health record systems, according to market-research firm MarketsandMarkets.

“It is the opportune time for cognitive [computing] to come in and help employers and providers and payers and governments understand what the costs are to treat chronic disease patients and provide pathways that are going to provide better outcomes at a controllable cost,” Deborah DiSanzo, the former CEO of Philips Healthcare and now the general manager and head of Watson Health, said during an investor briefing earlier this year. “This is a market we're going to help build.”

Despite the interest and potential value of the market, a number of questions persist. Do doctors have time to comb through more data about their patients? How protected is this information? Do physicians understand how a Fitbit, which tracks activity, can be used to better tailor a patient's treatment plan? Who is paying for these services? How reliable is the data?

More from Watson Week: What is cognitive computing, and what does it look like in healthcare?

The excitement is evident about the potential for better data in healthcare but it is still unclear how organizations can best use data to improve outcomes for patients and also lower costs for payers and healthcare providers. “We're in the infancy in all of this,” said Joachim Roski, principal at Booz Allen Hamilton. (Booz Allen and Deloitte both market data solutions to healthcare clients.)

Experts say that there are a few distinct areas where researchers believe that more data will improve outcomes. Clinical-trial design is one example. Both IBM and Apple have announced research projects looking at how care is delivered to patients with Parkinson's disease, notably about how sensors can be used to track the symptoms and progression of the disease. Another field of study is care coordination, which requires more attention as a greater number of patients undergo care out of hospitals and in their homes.

This isn't the first time that technology companies have seen potential in the healthcare market. A decade ago both Microsoft and Google launched personal health records, to much media fanfare. Google shut down its program in 2011.

“In the nature of the game, we will have some successes, but we will also have a fair number of failures,” Roski said.

There's no shortage of ambition in tech's latest assault on entrenched healthcare problems, either. IBM has pitched its services to Vice President Joe Biden's National Cancer Moonshot Initiative to accelerate oncology research. “Obviously it's primarily a data problem. There was mutual interest on both sides to get involved,” Bill Evans, chief marketing officer at Watson Health, told MM&M.

More from Watson Week: How Watson for Oncology is advancing cancer care

Another challenge for non-traditional healthcare companies moving into the healthcare market is understanding the complexity of the market. “They don't understand healthcare well enough to know what is the hard problem to solve,” Greenspun said.

It isn't hard to identify issues such as ways to improve how patients fill out information in the waiting room or how to better deliver test results, he noted. That's the low-hanging fruit. “It's easy to find that stuff,” he said.

Trust is another issue, and a lack of trust in drugmakers and health plans may be one reason fueling the rise in partnerships between the wide-ranging ecosystem that includes drug and medical device manufacturers, startups selling mobile solutions, doctors and hospitals, and the other players in the data market, Greenspun said. IBM, notably, has announced at least two dozen partnerships with a range of healthcare organizations in recent years.  

Those partnerships can create a “halo effect” that extends to less-trusted organizations. Patients, for instance, may be more willing to share their Fitbit data with their doctor, rather than with their employer, Greenspun added. A partnership with a technology brand that the patient is familiar with may help ease that hesitation.

Despite the issues at hand, experts say that the rising number of partnerships and the potential to pool data will create the pathway to eventually help address some of the tougher challenges facing the healthcare system.

“There's a new opportunity to connect pieces of information,” Roski said. “We're all trying to figure out how to leverage that in the healthcare space.”