Physicians Shouldn’t Wait for Big Data: “Small Data” Can Jumpstart Your Care Management Program

by David C. Kibbe MD, MBA and Vince Kuraitis JD, MBA

Everywhere we turn these days it seems “Big Data” is being touted as a solution for physicians and physician groups who want to participate in Accountable Care Organizations, (ACOs) and/or accountable care-like contracts with payers. We disagree, and think the accumulated experience about what works and what doesn’t work for care management suggests that a “Small Data” approach might be good enough for many medical groups, while being more immediately implementable and a lot less costly. We’re not convinced, in other words, that the problem for ACOs is a scarcity of data or second rate analytics. Rather, the problem is that we are not taking advantage of, and using more intelligently, the data and analytics already in place, or nearly in place.

For those of you who are interested in the concept of Big Data, Steve Lohr recently wrote a good overview in his column in the New York Times, in which he said:

“Big Data is a shorthand label that typically means applying the tools of artificial intelligence, like machine learning, to vast new troves of data beyond that captured in standard databases. The new data sources include Web-browsing data trails, social network communications, sensor data and surveillance data.”

Applied to health care and ACOs, the proponents of Big Data suggest that some version of IBM’s now-famous Watson, teamed up with arrays of sensors and a very large clinical data repository containing virtually every known fact about all of the patients seen by the medical group, is a needed investment. Of course, many of these data are not currently available in structured, that is computable, format. So one of the costly requirements that Big Data may impose on us results from the need to convert large amounts of unstructured or poorly structured data to structured data. But when that is accomplished, so advocates tell us, Big Data is not only good for quality care, but is “absolutely essential” for attaining the cost efficiency needed by doctors and nurses to have a positive and money-making experience with accountable care shared-savings, gain-share, or risk contracts. The promotional literature for Big Data is peppered with jargon and catch phrases — “close to the point of care,” “synthesizing large amounts of information,” “transformational analytics,” and so on — that promise to “de-fragment” the current health care environment and offer predictive insights that the doctors, nurses, and patients do not now possess.

This all may be true. But why wait for Big Data to be put in place, when what we’ll call “Small Data” is already available and can offer information and analytical insights sufficient to get a good start on care management programs capable of improving quality and reducing some unnecessary costs?