By Cher Zevala

In the field of rehabilitation there has been an influx in the sheer volume of healthcare data being gathered. Yet what remains lacking is a set of standards to guide the most effective processes for collecting that data, manipulating it, analyzing it, and applying it in ways that benefit the profession and its clients. As a result, most practitioners are taking a more experimental approach to working with data, and addressing the opportunities and challenges this new paradigm presents.

Paradigm Change

The first step in gaining a clearer picture of the promise of big data and its potential for the arena of rehabilitation is to consider the opportunities big data represents for a rehab practice. A noticeable shift occurring as a result of big data is a widespread change in thinking from looking at causes and responses to taking a focus on the correlations between variables. Typically the methods used for data analysis compare data to existing knowledge. Conclusions are drawn subsequently based on that comparison.

A good illustration of this process can be taken from the banking industry, for which data analysis is commonly used in fraud detection. For example, when a bank customer’s debit card is used to make a purchase, the characteristics of that purchase are compared to vast amounts of data associated with fraudulent purchases, including the customer’s own purchasing patterns. If a particular number of markers is identified, the bank may contact the customer to confirm the purchase and, when necessary, decline the transaction. Those same principles can be applied to healthcare. For example, a patient’s condition can be compared to data related to other patients with similar symptoms and, thus, a treatment plan may be devised.

There is another advantage to be had by adopting a data-mining perspective. That advantage is simply this: by focusing on correlations instead of causations, healthcare clinicians can search for patterns within sets of data that may spur new ideas and treatment protocols. Though the idea of managing that data may sound daunting the reality is that identifying those patterns may actually become easier with the existence of electronic health records, electronic clinical outcome assessments in research and clinical trials, and insurance claims. New methods of working with the data will emerge that will, in turn, create even more opportunities to improve a practice. Following are what a few of those opportunities might look like:

• Improved communication with patients. One of the most common questions patients ask is, “How long will treatment take?” Data mining can be used to compare similar patients to develop effective treatments. It can also better estimate the duration of therapy, the pain or difficulty that may be experienced, and how to avoid setbacks.

• Establish measurable goals. Big data provides evidence of measurable outcomes in rehab—information that therapists can use to establish patient goals and improve the method and speed with which those goals are met. Though more efficient care costs are reduced and patient satisfaction improves.

• Better provider skill sets. By comparing a particular facility’s performance against national and local performance patterns can be identified in strengths and weaknesses. That information can be applied in the creation of employee development plans that can help improve a practice’s overall performance.

These prospects engender excitement, yet for all of the opportunities of big data significant challenges remain.

Managing Big Data

One of the major challenges to using big data to its greatest advantage in rehabilitation is that it is relatively new and there are not yet prescribed standards for the collection and use of the data. That is all changing, but other challenges remain for providers.

• Determining the best tools for data collection. The question is no longer whether a practice should use an electronic medical record, but rather which medical record should be used to best match the practice. Understanding how well the system can retrieve and use data from all of the sources that are collecting data is also vital to consider. Data must be available in usable, comparable formats before it can be useful.

• Putting data to work. In the new healthcare environment rehab practitioners must prove that they are improving outcomes. Providing healthcare is no longer about seeing as many patients as possible to collect higher reimbursements. Data can help with this, but only when providers use the data they collect to better inform treatment. PTP

Cher Zevala is a content coordinator specializing in topics associated with the healthcare industry and innovations in the healthcare field. She is also a contributing writer to Physical Therapy Products. For more information, contact [email protected].