How does one define the concept of “big data?” What is its overall benefit in healthcare? I hoped to discover the answers to these and other timely questions on the use of evidence in policy and practice at a recent conference I had the honor of attending for the AXON US healthcare practice. This meeting consisted of a rigorous agenda with multiple, fascinating discussions from CEOs, Executive Directors, Vice Presidents, and other executives and business leaders from organizations such as Kaiser Permanente, Partners HealthCare, CVS Caremark Corporation and Mayo Clinic. “Data BIG and Small: What Healthcare Decision Makers are Using Now” sought to define the concept of “big data” and its overall benefit in healthcare at the ECRI Institute’s 20th Annual Conference held in Washington, DC.

Big data is formally defined as “the process of examining large amounts of data in a variety of forms to uncover hidden patterns, correlations and other useful information” and is gaining a foothold in healthcare. Correctly applied in healthcare, big data has the potential to change how healthcare practitioners address the changing dynamics in medicine, from the way medical records are taken to how students learn and practice the discipline. The goal of the “Data BIG and Small” was to address how this evolving concept is impacting crucial areas of healthcare, including public and private sectors, providers, payers, patient safety, healthcare quality and cost, and population health, among others.

Far more than an introductory course, the conference agenda helped chaperone the attendees from the required infrastructure for big data in the public and private sectors, to its utilization in healthcare where it is already transforming the health system for the better. Ideally, big data will also improve how patient data is analyzed for safety signals by searching for patterns in the abundant information, and how these analyses can potentially help prevent a number of illnesses in the future.

The most profound message that I learned from this conference is the coevolution that is occurring with technology and the human mind. Technology continues to allow the medical and data analysis communities to collaborate effectively to develop major advances in medicine, some of which could potentially reduce the role of the doctor in the decision making process for patient treatment (and what the impact of this could be in the medical community). As the world of technology continues its inexorable evolution, medical communication and educational processes will need to adapt so that people can keep pace with technological advancements to productively use these newly minted tools to help further define how technology and human insight can align to optimize decision making processes for the ongoing patient journey.

Josephine Di Laura