BOSTON – The daily deluge of depressing headlines notwithstanding, it should be heartening to know that “if you look at the data, the world is not going to hell in a handbasket,” said Dr. Amy Compton-Phillips, executive vice president and chief clinical officer at Seattle-base Providence St. Joseph Health.
Indeed, said Compton-Phillips in the opening keynote of the HIMSS Machine Learning and AI for Healthcare event here in Boston, if one looks at the numbers for global health and life expectancy, there’s been a steady and significant improvement of worldwide well-being over the past half-century.
“Of all the times to be alive on earth, the best time is now,” she said. “It just doesn’t always feel that way.”
And the primary reason things have improved to that extent? Data.
Not just raw data, but the use of that data to tell stories that enable positive changes – and the way those stories can in turn enable a deeper understanding of what those data insights are telling us.
“We’ve been doing well because of the scientific method: seeing how we are, applying learning and then improving,” said Compton-Phillips.
The good news, even if it also poses huge challenges, is that there’s more data than ever to enable and inform healthcare leaders to drive decisions and drive change.
“The haystack keeps growing bigger and bigger,” she said. “We’re searching for the right needles.”
But properly managed, that profusion of new data is enabling deep new insights that get more complex and potentially transformative by the day.
Compton-Phillips showed how, just as Leonardo Da Vinci, through close and careful observation, was able to suss out the similarities between the branches of trees and coronary arteries, so are researchers making continuous progress on establishing the complex connections – genome, proteome, microbiome, metabolome and clinical traits – that will enable big advances in precision medicine going forward.
It’s not just Leonardo. Healthcare pioneers from centuries past understood the twin imperatives of data and compelling narrative to enable better outcomes, she said.
Whether it was Scottish physician Dr. James Lind – writing his “Treatise of the Scurvy in Three Parts. Containing an Inquiry into the Nature, Causes and Cure of that Disease” – or John Snow, considered a father of modern epidemiology, patiently plotting the data points on his cholera map of 19th Century London, the notion that data-driven storytelling is key to enabling positive change is longstanding.
And so it is today, said Compton-Phillips. Some people fear that all this data is fueling artificial intelligence and machine learning that could take over the practice of medicine, she said. But “it’s not going to replace, it’s going to supplement. We just need to figure out how to put the right data together to make sure the sum is more than its parts.”
For instance, at Providence St. Joseph, the health system has enabled big gains in patient safety and quality improvement by drilling down into an array of data sources: EHR data, sure. But also handwashing data, information gleaned from room cleaning and environmental health and maintenance teams, etc.
“The data showed us where we needed to focus and what we needed to do,” she said. But just as important was “showing data in ways that are intuitive and useful.”
Compton-Phillips offered three core pieces of advice for health systems looking to do the same by leveraging their datasets as a strategic asset: Ask the right questions. Add art to science. Change the equation.
“Data is our key asset,” she said. “But is data the asset, or is it what we do with it?
She added: “We have to find a way to get people to want to use the data to drive change.”
Change is hard, Compton-Phillips conceded. But the good news is that there’s more insights than ever available to enable the quality and efficiency improvements that healthcare in the U.S. so needs.
It’s out there, in a volume and variety that didn’t exist even a few years ago. Now it’s just a matter of knowing where to look for it, and how to frame it in a way that will enable lasting improvements.
“Never doubt the ability of new data to change the world,” said Compton-Phillips. “It’s the only thing that really has.”
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