Whoopin’ and Hollerin’ for Health Data: But What about People?

By Michael BIRT

Blue_Grid_Face - Health Data PeopleThere was a lot of whoopin’ and hollerin’ from some unlikely suspects last week in Washington, DC at the Health Datapalooza: boisterous health data enthusiasts.

Now in its fifth year, the Datapalooza has grown from a small core of a few hundred data geeks to 2,000 newly converted data zealots. The usual suspects were there—Todd Park (CTO for the U.S.) and Jonathan Bush of Athena Health.

Palpable zeal at the Datapalooza about exabytes and zettabytes contrasts dramatically with more sober meetings that I attend on subjects like workplace wellness, diabetes management, and clinical translation.

But I realized that the Datapalooza had largely left out a key ingredient—people. It’s not as if the organizers didn’t see it. One of the prominently stated meeting goals was to “promote a human-centered health system, powered by health data.”

Still, that points to the disconnect. People (or as health systems call them, patients) don’t care about data. They don’t care about their LDL or HDL numbers or, blood pressure. They care about what that data means for their health.

It’s easy to see why a data geek would omit the people dimension. Changing human behavior is tough. People know that they shouldn’t smoke, eat too many doughnuts, or sit all day. But they do. Will more data change that behavior? Probably not, which is why folks at workplace wellness meetings veer toward cynicism and burnout.

Still, the Datapalooza folks are on to something. There are big changes brewing. I’d love to see the same level of enthusiasm for effective behavior change systems as I saw for data.

Written by Michael Birt, Director, Center for Sustainable Health.