Blog Post

Mo' data, mo' problems? – Part 2

October 22, 2014
SE2 friend and project partner Bill Sonn recently moved on from his role as senior director of Marketing, Communications & Public Relations with University of Colorado Health after eight years.
Like Bill, SE2 has a long track record of helping a variety of health care organizations – hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, professional associations, providers and insurers – move the meter on issues that matter. Those issues vary greatly depending on the challenges each client is facing at the moment with internal or external stakeholders.
This post is the second in a three-part series in which I interviewed Bill about the future of health care communications. Click here to check out the first post, “The Changing ‘Face’ of Health Care Communications.”
JH: There’s a lot of talk about “big data” in healthcare and how it can change the way care is provided. What’s one opportunity that medical “big data” opens to health care communicators?
BS: The Centers for Disease Control and an overwhelming library of scholarly studies have found that only 5-10 percent of a person’s health status has anything to do with medical care. All the rest is dependent on genetic and environmental factors – economic status, access to social supports – and, most importantly, on personal behavior. (Perversely, 95 percent of our outlandish national health care spending goes to that minor 5-10 percent). That said, “big data” is probably best applied to making medical care delivery more efficient and, for communicators, in getting the right health information to people at the right point in their therapies. In this, communicators can play a significant, practical and sustainable role in the overall health of a patient than clinicians alone can provide.
With data distilled from electronic medical records and even transactional data, for example, we can deliver the information patients need in a digestible form at the time their providers can predict they’ll need it. It allows us to use information such as the patient’s condition or diagnosis, most recent interaction with the health care system, the stage of therapy, status of insurance coverage, as well as the environmental factors described above to offer highly personalized and targeted communications.
JH: I can see how it can help patients in practical ways. How do you see big data changing the business of health care?
BS: Big data can make health systems more efficient. Once we can parse and glean evidence, insights and even wisdom from large data sets, we can track a far larger and more diverse herd of providers, payers and patients than is currently feasible. Then, for example, the data could be analyzed to identify the high value providers in the field.
An interesting phenomenon is that so much of the existing health care data is inaccessible or flat-out inaccurate. Systems don’t talk to each other. Fields are filled incorrectly. Codes are wrong. There are corporate obstacles to either enforcing or investing in data-entry excellence. And there is a crippling shortage of people to parse and report the data either economically or within a useful timeframe.
Communicators, marketers and just about anyone on the business side of health care are starving for accurate, timely and affordable data. But in many organizations, getting it is the challenge. The first opportunity for communicators may be to secure regular, reliable access to business and market data, big or otherwise.
JH: Since you’ve recently held a senior communications position within a hospital system, I’m sure you’ve had a personal encounter with the upsides and downsides of big data. What did you take away from your experience on the job regarding big data?
BS: I have some worries. In many ways, data is paralyzing us and will soon kill us. There’s too much data, too much communication, too many impressions in our lives.
As the sheer quantity of information expands exponentially – for us as communicators and us as analytical thinkers – so do the risks of being either wrong or too stuffed with conflicting impressions to act.
Our decision-making slows and, at last, we’re surpassed by more evolved and perhaps manufactured organisms.
Rebecca Costa, an evolutionary biologist based in California, argues that the amount and velocity of information, images and impressions out there has outstripped our brains’ capacity to process it usefully.
The resulting complexity, she posits, leads to breakdown and perhaps extinction, at which time, by the way, I’m not sure health care communication is going to be our biggest problem.
So here’s another opportunity: We need to develop and use rigor – objective rigor – to effectively reduce the flood of data into meaningful, useable, discrete pieces of communication. That may call for communicators to acquire additional professional standards, and learn to focus more on clarity, applicability, and results.
Like what you read? You can find the third installment of this series in which Bill and Jill discuss the “pitfalls of channel obsession” here.

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