Saturday, November 20, 2010

The weight of health information

Lately I've been speaking with several folks who are in possession of large amounts of health information for one reason or another.  They all believe their data is valuable and are looking for ways to leverage it to make a business or to advance medical understanding, or both.  Noble ambitions indeed but a question struck me as I listened to the the most recent of them this last week.  Could it be that the weight of all that information is actually crushing innovation rather than stimulating it?  It seems to me that we have a plethora of data looking for a problem to solve.  If we recall the old proverb, 'Neccessity is the Mother of Invention', and then consider that some of our most recent enduring inventions were developed locally and ground-up with little intellectualization at the start (some of the more successful social media forums for eg) we might conclude tha Nike may have it right in their newer proverb, 'Just Do It'.  Serve a local, immediate and acknowledged need; if it works scale it.  This avoids the political nightmares of having to first make a business case to those who don't believe there is one.  The latter is a very difficult way to start a business but we do it all the time.

If we start from the ground up, we all want better health but what does that really mean?  Here are some possibilities:  Better ways to know if we are sick, or going to get sick; better treatments to prevent or cure at costs we can afford; more control over our general health; less hassle in managing health for ourselves and those we care for; a more peaceful existence.  To me, the latter is perhaps the most important of all and to some degree relies on success in the former four.

There are numerous elements to each of the outcomes but it seems like the last place to start in attempting solutions might be in collecting the data.  There's no harm in it per se, provide one doesn't expect the answers to then simply reveal themselves.  We must exert some energy up front if we are to make sense of the problem and move toward solutions in a short time frame and at reasonable cost. However, given that my colleagues have started with the data,  let's look at the process from the data-first perspective.  We are forced to ask questions in the following way: 1) what data do you have and where does the data comes from 2) what problems can you apply it to 3) who might have a vested interest in either the data or a solution.  Very time consuming and like put the cake ingredients into a bowl and then asking what we might make with it.  If we think nationally or globally then the problem is magnified and can be prone to costly red herrings.

If we look at the problem first, then understanding what to do with the data becomes that much easier because the need is already understood. To further simplify, solving a problem locally first allows one to talk directly with those that have the problem rather than having to resort to assertions or assumptions about the population as a whole.  Locally, trial and error can be conducted at low cost and low risk.  Even for those that already have large data sets, perhaps as a side effect of another part of their business (pharmacies or drug companies for instance), this approach is a sensible way to determine how the data might be leveraged more broadly.

Starting with a large amount of data and a set of assumptions means starting with a muddy board.  The danger of solving the wrong problem is great, provided you can get out from under the weight of all that data.   Starting with a white board and a diverse group of passionate individuals with first-hand knowledge of the problem is an innovation waiting to happen.


1. Identify the problems before you collect/look at the data
2. Become a local hero first.

Anyone have anything to add?
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