Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Picture That

Mala Anand, SAP's President and EVP- Analytics, recently wrote, "data is the fuel for the digital economy."  We generate more data than ever before, are finding new ways to derive value out of that data, and organizations in most industries are realizing that effectively applying that value is critical for success.  Health care included.  

Our problem, though, may not be in either generating or analyzing all that data, but in visualizing it.

Dataconomy used the example of the weather, for which we have huge datasets and highly sophisticated prediction models, all of which have to get boiled down into the slick graphics we've come to expect from our local weatherperson.

It is not enough to have the right data or the right data scientists; "you also need someone who has domain knowledge of your business and the ability to effectively communicate information back to end users."

Co.Design reported on new research from Autodesk that help illustrate (pun intended) how visualizing data is "a crucial part of analysis that can reveal surprising things about your data." The research takes 12 seemingly similar datasets that end up having very different graphical representations, providing insights that might otherwise have been missed.
Source: Audodesk
A recent Health Catalyst article, by Huesch and Mosher made the case for more data scientists in health care, noting that, among other things:

  • 30% of the world's stored data comes from the health care industry;
  • Of the approximately 6,000 data scientists in the U.S., only 180 work in health care;
  • health care could use 10 to 20 times more data scientists.
If you're having trouble with the math (perhaps you need a picture!), a sector that is 20% of our economy and has 30% of the data only employs 3% of its data scientists.  That sure seems like a problem.  

The authors outline of the barriers that have led to this shortfall, outline the buy-versus-build dilemma health care organizations face when it comes to beefing up their expertise, but believe that
Putting these pieces together will help the overall health care sector to achieve the same much-needed improvements in cost, outcomes, access, and experience that the data revolution has achieved in so many other industries.
It may not be easy.  Health care faces fierce competition for data scientists.  IBM recently profiled how fast the field is growing, with annual job openings increasing by 364,000 by 2020 -- 2,720,00 in total.  
Source: IBM
Unfortunately, the talent pool is nowhere near what it needs to be.  PwC, working with the Business-Higher Education Forum, urged that we address the skill gaps for data science and analytics: 69% of employers want workers with such skills, but only 23% of educators say their graduates have them.  They repeatedly cited data visualization as one of the core competencies needed.  

Having a bunch of quants produce reams of spreadsheets with statistically meaningful analyses of zillions of numbers is all well and good, but may not do much to improve anything we do, unless the decision-makers can understand them.  Health care already has plenty of statistics, many of which clinicians do not make full use of and which most consumers do not understand.  

Let's face it; most of us are not good with numbers.  Most of us don't think in numbers.  Most of us think in pictures.

Data visualization is a new form of visual communication, helping to provide insights into large datasets.  If you've seen an infographic, you've seen one form of data visualization.  The University of British Columbia provided this overview on the field:

A key statement: "it provides insight into complex datasets by communicating their key aspects in more intuitive and meaningful ways."

To date, most data visualization has been in 2D, seen on a screen or piece of paper, but we're already seeing efforts to portray data in virtual reality, such as by "creative science studio" Kineviz.  Holograms may be next.

Health care, despite its paucity of data scientists, is trying to embrace the data visualization.  For example, the American Academy of Family Physicians just issued their Vision for a Principled Redesign of Health Information Technology, describing their vision for how HIT can support improved care.  Data visualization was one of the first priorities listed, as they predict it will "...make it easy for the clinician to see patterns and make insight..."

Abhinav Shashank, cofounder of Innovaccer, sees data visualization as key to the future of health care:
Once physicians move away from long, incomprehensible data flows, and find an alternative that helps them instinctively read, isolate, and act upon the insights, only then can we be one step closer to a data-driven, value-based care. 
The University of Michigan Center for Health Communications Research, through funding by the Robert Wood Foundation, founded Visualizing Health,  A video explains their purpose:

Their interest is not just academic; they want to help people do their own data visualization.  They provide a toolkit for consumers and organizations to better display data, including The Wizard and a gallery of visual approaches to data.

Health care is desperately trying to reshape itself from a hands-on, more-art-than-science, physician-centered enterprise to a data-driven, value-based, patient-centered science.  We're not there yet.  Big data is expected to play a crucial role in this transformation, but, as Sutter Health's CHIO Sameer Badlani recently said, "Big data has moved on from infancy.  It's in the terrible twos right now.  We're still trying to figure out what to do with it."

A large part of that has to be how to explain all that data to its various users -- practitioners, executives, and consumers.  Data visualization will be key.  Health care may or may not need more doctors, but it certainly needs more innovative business models, better technology designers, and more data and computer scientists.

And data visualization experts.

Google has invited designers and artists from around the world to tell better stories about Google data through data visualization.  What health care organization is ready to do the same with their data?

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