When it Comes to Healthcare, Access to Data Isn't Enough

By Hamid Ghanadan

Between the media frenzy over breaches at Facebook, compliance with the EU’s GDPR and skyrocketing stock prices of companies like Apple and FitBit, personal data is at center stage.

But to me, no where is personal data more critical than healthcare.

Personal data is easily accessible today. At our fingertips, we have access to so much quantitative information about ourselves: the amount of time we spend in REM sleep, the percentage of saturated fat we consumed during dinner or how many calories we burned on our evening walk with the dog. But this torrent of untapped data about our health is also available to companies, too.

As Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute, mentioned in Fortune, “Up until three-to-five years ago, all that data was just sitting there. Now it’s being analyzed and interpreted. It’s the most radical change happening in health care.”

It’s easy to forget that as we’re using our data for personal wellbeing and growth, companies and corporations are also using our information to paint a vivid picture by drawing trends, making connections, and trying to leverage these data to improve health outcomes. All of this is driving attention toward digital health.

While most of the discourse around data revolves around personal rights and privacy, I choose to take a different view:

That data alone isn’t enough in changing healthcare outcomes. Because data rarely leads to a change in behavior.

We need to incorporate our understanding of human behavior to improve outcomes.

Across the healthcare industry, medical professionals are starting to understand and leverage human behavior as a key player in the advancement of science and medicine.

Behavior is critical to not only improving care, but also improving outcomes in medicine. If a patient population isn’t behaving the way that improves their condition we have to discover why.

If we approach patient care and recovery knowing that behavior isn’t purely rational, we can write a new future for healthcare.

For example, Penn Medicine's Nudge Unit wanted to increase patient adherence to regimens. One major barrier to patients following a regimen is the high cost of drugs. Upon further investigation, they found that only a fraction of their physicians were prescribing generics, even though in many cases generics were available.

Penn Medicine conducted a series of studies to determine if a simple 'nudge' in changing the default settings in Electronic Health Records to favor generics would impact the physicians prescribing patterns.

The results were astounding. Just by changing what drugs were in the default display settings, there was an increase in generic prescriptions, from just 75% of generic drugs being prescribed to nearly 99%!

This group has also published results of experimenting with financial and social incentives to improve activity amongst patients.

Integrating behavior into these endeavors isn't easy. Despite the fact that each of us is a human constantly behaving in certain ways, it is still immensely difficult to nail down the baffling aspects of human behavior.

But with the availability of data, and devices that can 'nudge' human behavior, I believe every aspect of healthcare can leverage the power of human behavior to encourage healthier outcomes.

Technology will continue to improve health outcomes. But there is low-hanging fruit that we can leverage today to improve health outcomes, if we leverage human behavioral tendencies and provide the right psychological conditions for people to change their behavior.

I'd love to hear your thoughts. In what ways can organizations integrate behavior better? Tweet me at @hamidghanadan.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Hamid Ghanadan