“The devil is in the details” may aptly describe how healthcare analytics leaders feel about the challenge to digest and analyze today’s large and growing mass of healthcare information. Given the growing magnitude of healthcare data, bargaining with the devil to help make sense of it may sound like a good deal. Healthcare data has reached 150 exabytes today and is expected to double in less than 10 years.1 An exabyte equals one quintillion—a ‘1’ with 18 zeros behind it—bytes of data. Since every human word ever spoken would only equal 50 exabytes, healthcare data is outpacing our vocabulary at a three to one rate.2 Even more concerning is how its growth is outpacing our cognitive abilities. 

If our brains contained a 64 bit microprocessor (as found in an iPhone 6), we could store about 16 exabytes. Our brains, however, are nowhere close to that, and research shows that we can only keep seven proverbial balls in the air during any decision-making process; the rest just crash to the ground.3 George Armitage Miller’s cognitive science research summarized that humans can be “persecuted by an integer”, and are capable of processing only seven variables at any given time.  As if this were not overwhelming enough, healthcare data is so diverse and, in most cases, unique, that it requires both technical and dimensional understanding to give it value and make sense out of it.  The human brain’s cognitive strength is not in processing infinite data, but in recognizing patterns in isolated and relevant subsets. The challenge before us is to make healthcare analytics consumable and digestible.

The IT industry is rapidly adding toolsets to help transform, compartmentalize and analyze the data tsunami we’re only beginning to surf.  For healthcare leaders, the key success determinant is to now develop a purposeful and strategic approach of the selection and use of your toolsets.  As with iPhone adoption, the real power in riding this wave lies in practical, topic-focused, and easy to use applications and healthcare-specific content. These three strategies will help exorcise the devils in your data:

  • Less can be more. Don’t yield to the perception that the mega data warehouse is the only path to nirvana. Employ experts to help you understand what data you have, and determine why and how you’re going to use it.  Be practical, and approach your data with a plan that answers two basic questions– what can we do today and what should we do tomorrow?

  • Remember that human cognitive strength is in recognizing patterns, and look for solutions and partners that provide healthcare-specific content that helps illuminate opportunities. Invest in the human capital that can transform data subsets into insightful dashboards that support habitual process improvement, and not just special projects. To create innovation and transformation, analytics programs should not be relegated to your organization’s information specialists, but made available to all stakeholders as a standard operating procedure.

  • Place data governance and performance improvement  capabilities at the foundation of your plan. Creating an information-orientated culture that fosters widespread use of trusted data can be directly attributed to a governance model that helps eliminate data shopping and the “my data definition is better than yours” debate.


Are you ready to obtain consumable insights from your healthcare data? Learn how McKesson Performance Analytics can help.

1 Versel, Neil. “Big Data Use in Healthcare Needs Governance, Education.” Information Week, 21 March 2014. Retrieved December 22, 2014
2 http://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2013/05/vocabulary-size
3 Instructional Design. Accessed December 22, 2014

Tina Foster

About the author

Tina Foster, RN, BSN, MBA is vice president, McKesson Business Advisor Consultants. This group of tenured professionals provides extensive coaching and transformation services for a broad portfolio of innovative web-based and enterprise, vendor-agnostic analytics and benchmarking solutions. Customers who engage with McKesson Business Advisors have had success in managing population health and risk; advanced clinical and financial analytics; network capacity and throughput; and in improving regulatory compliance and quality outcomes. Tina is also a certified Black Belt in Six Sigma Process Excellence.