Data Is the New Oil

By James McDeavitt, MD

I recently was given the opportunity to represent Baylor College of Medicine at the Association of American Medical Colleges as part of a year-long conversation on becoming a “Learning Health System”.

At the inaugural event, I heard from others around the country examples of substantive efforts to harness the power of academic medical centers to improve the care delivery system and the health of populations.

I want to focus on a single phrase, which resonated with me. It resonated because it is pithy and succinct. It resonated because it encapsulates succinctly much of what it is to be a Learning Health System.

Perhaps it also resonated because, after more than a year at Baylor, I consider myself a fully acculturated Texan. It is such a simple phrase, I am sure most of you have heard it before, but I had not:

Data is the new oil.

In Texas, oil is literally under our feet. We cannot see it, but it is everywhere. Like oil, data is all around us: In our electronic health record; in our billing and insurance systems; in hospital quality measures; in our patients’ genetic material; in disconnected and disparate tissue biobanks. We cannot see it, but it is all around us in quantities that boggle the mind.

Like oil, it is worthless where it is—it must be extracted. We must drill for oil, we must mine for data. It is necessary to pull data together into systems that can make connections and recognize patterns.

Oil comes out of the ground dirty—full of impurities and contaminants. It must be refined and processed. The impurities must be removed, and desired compounds isolated. Raw data is similarly dirty. It is filled with errors and noise. It needs to be filtered and cleansed to be useful.

The resulting petroleum product—gasoline, heating oil—then needs to transported to the end-user. Investment is needed in trucks, rail, pipelines and tankers to get it to the consumer.

Likewise, data is of limited utility if it remains locked in servers, or in the hands of a data sensei. Systems need to be developed to get actionable data in the hands of providers, teachers and researchers where it can make a difference.

For example, assume based on data (patient demographics, physiologic parameters, social factors, genetic factors) we could predict with reasonable certainty the likelihood a patient would be readmitted. Would an attending physician and case manager alter their discharge and follow up plans for a patient with a known 75 percent chance of readmission?

Finally, before the analogy becomes overly tortured, the oil buried under our feet is entirely worthless. It is only after it is extracted, purified, refined and delivered to the consumer that it has value, and its value is substantial—influencing the rise and fall of nations. The data in my computer is worthless. Our data—extracted, purified and accessible—also has incredible value, upon which health systems may rise and fall.

Baylor will continue a discussion of what it means to us to be a Learning Health System. Our definition will and should be unique to our organization. However, it will certainly demand the effective and efficient use of data.

Note: Based on extensive research (i.e. a Google search) the phrase “data is the new oil” is attributed to Clive Humby in 2006.

McDeavitt Baylor suitJames T. McDeavitt, M.D., is Dean of Clinical Affairs, Senior Vice President, Strategy & Growth, and Professor and Chair for the Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation at Baylor College of Medicine. He can be reached at james.mcdeavitt@bcm.edu.

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