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A medical gold mine, buried underneath layers of red tape

Surgeon using tabletSurgeon using tablet

Over the last few years, cloud computing has become more broadly accessible, offering an opportunity for performance improvement across a range of industries. The open, plug-and-play-type cloud-computing services and infrastructure provided by players such as Box and Dropbox can allow for aggregation and analysis of multiple independent entities and data sources at a scale not previously feasible. Opening these rich, cloud-based data platforms to third-party data analytics can generate greater insights than is possible within limited proprietary datasets.

Not every industry has taken advantage of advances in cloud computing. Health care has certainly been a laggard, largely on account of data privacy rules in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). That legislation has led to a proliferation of isolated data platforms and electronic medical records. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment growth in the health care industry was among the highest in the US since 2002 and will continue to outpace other industries through 2022. While productivity in health care is more difficult to pin down, the industry has not reaped the productivity gains of other leading industries. Given benefits of the cloud ecosystem, is health care missing a huge opportunity?

Cloud computing can help improve the industries that embrace it. The value of data lies in the insights that can be drawn from it. Traditionally, however, it wasn’t so easy to access those insights; companies needed to aggregate, standardize, and contextualize data—a challenging, expensive process. Cloud computing simplifies this process on several levels.

  • In data aggregation, information is gathered and summarized before it is analyzed. The cloud makes it much cheaper and easier to combine disparate sets of data at a large scale.
  • In data standardization, multiple types of data are converted into a common format. Cloud-based infrastructure allows aggregation platforms to digest broad data sets and transform data into compatible formats for deeper analysis.
  • In data contextualization, combining data with user profiles and real-time feedback can help deliver more relevant, tailored information. The cloud makes it possible to aggregate much richer and more disparate data sources. The more sources and the broader the analytics, the more valuable your data becomes.

The possibilities of cloud computing, however, bring new technical and organizational hurdles. Collection errors, along with inconsistent entry formats, can hinder comparability, necessitating extensive data standardization. And the financial incentives of sharing data and broad-based collaboration can conflict with the need to share proprietary information beyond the company. Organizations looking to fully harness the potential of cloud computing must address these hurdles and create a compelling case for sharing information.

Today, health care is not taking advantage of what cloud computing can offer. Extensive privacy laws make it challenging to link long-term personal health information to an individual. This makes it very difficult to track and assess patient care systematically over time, especially if that care is provided by many different organizations.

The emergence of aggregation platforms offers some hope. For example, Athenahealth offers cloud-based software for electronic health records and other health care practice management services. The cloud provides a foundation for companies to integrate data (patient claims, billing records, clinical data, etc.), generate analytics to simplify the way hospitals function and share information, and help hospital executives run their practices.

Flatiron Health uses the cloud to aggregate, standardize, and structure data collected from cancer centers and researchers. The company’s efforts to organize data across millions of patients into a common cloud-based format opens up new possibilities for better outcomes in oncology.

To succeed, aggregators must convince care providers, health plans, researchers, and other industry players to share their data. They must offer value to individual users, regardless of others’ participation.

Privacy is critical, but consumers and patients may pay a steep price if valuable information isn’t shared. Is there any way to protect privacy while still increasing aggregation? With no immediate changes to HIPAA or data sharing restrictions in sight, the clinical side of the industry may feel even less urgency to open up.

Meanwhile, the fitness and wellness side of health care is becoming even more relentless in its data aggregation efforts, as consumers share their sleep, eating, and exercise habits using wearable devices and smartphone apps. Wellness providers have an opportunity to demonstrate the power of large-scale data aggregation and analytics to the health care world. As users begin to see the value of sharing their data, they are likely to expect similar access from more traditional providers.

Today, cloud computing continues to offer opportunities for industries to better integrate and understand the data they generate. In industries where regulations still encourage data silos, the eventual winners will likely be those that construct open, wide-ranging ecosystems that attract disparate data sets and encourage collaborative analytics. Whatever your industry or the size of your organization, ask yourself two questions: What additional data could you combine with your own to get more insight? And how could you invite third-party players to engage and run analytics on your data?

John Hagel III is the co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge based in Silicon Valley. John Seely Brown is the independent co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge.