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Snake Oil and Healthcare

Vivek Bhatt
Chief Technology Officer

Vivek Bhatt

GE Healthcare

The other day, my son sent me this link http://www.stgallenbusinessreview.com/data-is-the-new-snake-oil/ with a one-liner saying “What do you think?”.

Usually I would reply back with a sentence or two, or sometimes just an emoji…but this one got me thinking. From his vantage point, Shyam Sankar from Palantir shares a very thoughtful look at the dynamics and pitfalls of data transformation at institutions under the two guiding principles of “solve the right problem” and “follow the right path”.

As someone who has been in the business of creating products in healthcare for 25 years, and having made enough mistakes to learn from, I know that the products that ultimately succeed are the ones that create a meaningful change in the outcome for a patient.

When I apply that experience to the thoughts shared by Shyam Sankar, it boils down to – action is what really matters to change the outcome for a patient.

Too often we think left to right – start with data, use it to create knowledge, and that will lead to better understanding. The logic being that once there is understanding, good things will automatically happen.

A lot of what is happening, especially in the Healthcare digital innovation space, follows that chain of thought to its logical conclusion of generating a better understanding.

It is often said that it takes 17 years for a proven research to reach clinical practice. One may argue whether its 17, or 5, or 25 years – the point remains that in the time constants of digital, it takes a long time for that understanding to be translated into practice. And unless that practice changes, the value of the understanding itself remains untapped.

No matter how complete and rich the data is, and how complex the underlying algorithms are, the real problem ultimately does not get solved.

It’s not a matter of generating understanding or enabling action, it is an and. The products that would create a meaningful impact ultimately are the ones that are created with the awareness to enable that combination.

To make a difference to patients or operations for the hospital, we have to think right to left, and focus on the fact that the actions taken today have to be in some way or form different compared to what would have been done in the past.

That happens if 3 things are true –

  1. the person who can act has been made aware that there is a new understanding,
  2. the information is available at a point in time and place when the person can take the action, not as a retrospective or at a place where they cannot act, and
  3. in case timely action is missed – especially in a human processes – there is a way to alert and correct for it.

A discussion with an ICU nurse last week illustrated that amply – they have early warning scores and analytics to predict (the understanding) which patient has or will get sepsis and is at a risk of deterioration.

The problem “on the ground” was that sometimes the antibiotics prescribed had to be shipped in from a remote location, and could take up to 8 hours to get there and be administered (the action).

So, the answer to my son’s one sentence question is “Yes!!!”

At least in the healthcare space we would much better serve the patients the sooner we can break free from staying at a high level in the aphorisms of the digital age – “If it ain’t AI, it ain’t nothing”, “Data is the new oil”, “Skate to where the puck is going – and that is AI, big data, and cloud.”

Not that I am challenging those as wrong, but proposing that we ask the more meaningful question of what we need to do to enable the actions that change outcomes. That to me would be the litmus test for innovators that are seeking to separate Snake Oil from Healthcare.