Jan 16, 2013 (12:01 PM EST)
Optum, Mayo Join Forces To Exploit Big Data

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 7 Big Data Solutions Try To Reshape Healthcare
7 Big Data Solutions Try To Reshape Healthcare
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Big data in healthcare got another boost with the announcement that Optum and Mayo Clinic will combine forces in a new research center, Optum Labs, based in Cambridge, Mass. The partners will research ways to improve the quality of care and reduce costs by integrating huge amounts of clinical data from Mayo with claims data from Optum, the analytics unit of UnitedHealth Group.

What makes this approach different from that of big data experiments undertaken by other large healthcare organizations is that Optum and Mayo plan to publish their research results to benefit patients everywhere, rather than keeping their findings to themselves. In addition, Optum and Mayo executives said at a press conference, they would welcome collaborations with other like-minded organizations.

Andy Slavitt, executive VP of Optum, said that his company will contribute claims data on 100 million patients going back 20 years. Mayo will make available five million clinical records that encompass 15 years' worth of treatments. Although there is no plan to use genomic data at this point, that is an option for the future, Slavitt said. Whatever data is used will be de-identified before it reaches the research center, he added.

[ Need a balanced perspective on big data analytics? See 7 Big Data Solutions Try To Reshape Healthcare. ]

John Noseworthy, MD, president and CEO of Mayo Clinic, said the partnership is about transforming the U.S. healthcare system, which urgently needs to figure out how to deliver better care at an affordable cost. "This strategic research alliance allows us to truly examine best outcomes for patients at lower costs," he said. "For the first time, this allows us to answer the big questions in healthcare: What works best for patients with complex, costly illnesses that are plaguing our healthcare system and making it unsustainable."

Among the goals of the research at Optum Labs will be finding optimal treatments for conditions in a given care setting, understanding variations in care, and examining the effectiveness of patient care programs and approaches. The scientists also might develop applications to measure the relative cost effectiveness of medical devices, analyze how to improve the diagnosis of hepatitis C, and increase the understanding of health disparities among the elderly, according to the announcement.

At the press conference, Veronique Roger, MD, director of the Mayo Clinic Center for the Science of Health Care Delivery, cited congestive heart failure as an example of the type of common, high-cost condition that the researchers will address, using the power of big data. Right now, she noted, there's no good way to predict which patients with CHF will be readmitted to the hospital. By linking clinical and claims data, she said, the researchers can go from a snapshot of a patient's care to a "complete panorama," because they'll be able to connect what happened to the patient in the hospital with the care he or she received after discharge. As a result, they'll have the longitudinal information they need to better understand why heart failure patients are readmitted.

Optum Labs, which is owned by Optum, opened several months ago in a facility next to the MIT campus, Slavitt said. Already, the company is starting to staff the center with research scientists, and he expects it to have 60 employees by the end of the year. Mayo also will have some researchers onsite.

Asked how the research will be funded, Slavitt noted that Optum and Mayo have invested heavily in healthcare research for years, building up databases and using advanced analytic tools. "We both realized we can't take full advantage of these resources on our own," he said. When they combine their databases, he said, "scientists will be able ask more questions of bigger data sets. For the same amount of investment, we and others who join us will get a far bigger bang for the buck."

Although Optum is part of a for-profit insurance company, Slavitt insisted, "We're not setting up Optum Labs to make a profit." The goal of the initiative, he said, is "advance patient care and science and our own businesses and operations."

Clinical, patient engagement, and consumer apps promise to re-energize healthcare. Also in the new, all-digital Mobile Power issue of InformationWeek Healthcare: Comparative effectiveness research taps the IT toolbox to compare treatments to determine which ones are most effective. (Free registration required.)