RALEIGH – Jason Burke is a wrangler – not a cowboy roping horses or longhorns but a wrangler of data. He grew up a fan of Carl Sagan, not John Wayne. And his job can be every bit as hard as the Duke’s – if not quite as sweaty and dirty.

They are hoping to break and tame data into become a bigger part of health care’s future.

A former executive at SAS, Burke now leads a of some 40 fellow data wranglers at UNC Health Care that is seeking to find ways in which “big data” analytics can be used to improve health care. Partnerships turning mobile apps into health care tools such as deals with Apple are just two examples of the progress being made to turn dreams into tools and solutions.

With data from devices springing up through the nearly ubiquitous Internet of Things, increasingly sophisticated medical devices that can learn more about our state of health, wearable health monitors from earplugs to wristwatches, and so much more – what do healthcare professionals do with it all? How to they put it to use?

Jason Burke

That’s the Gordian Knot researchers such as Burke – a scientist inspired by Carl Sagan – are trying to figure out the benefits  then maximizing them.

As Burke says: “We no longer have a shortage of data; we have a shortage of insights.”

The iPhone apps are steps toward helping develop those insights. The chart [above] published with this post shows just how much data needs to be tracked and analyzed. Not an easy task.

But, before diving in to a discussion about solutions, let’s define big data.

Here’s how Cary-based SAS, his former employer and one of the world’s leaders in data analytics, defines big data:

“A term that describes the large volume of data – both structured and unstructured – that inundates a business on a day-to-day basis. … Big data can be analyzed for insights that lead to better decisions and strategic business moves.”

Burke, who is now chief analytics officer for Enterprises Analytics & Data Sciences, at UNC Health Care, has emerged as an expert on healthcare analytics, having served as head of life science strategy, research and development at SAS. He also is author of the book “Health Analytics.” Burke, who joined UNC in 2013, recently spoke with WRAL TechWire about the challenges and opportunities he and his group face in trying to turn terabytes of information into real-life means of helping people live healthier lives.

Earlier emphasis for the group has been to enhance care for cardiology and other patients as well as improving the flow of patients in hospitals and clinics to enable faster treatment.

Let’s start with the big, bottom-line question: How can big data analytics improve health care?

“Big data” and advanced analytics allow us to overcome the staggering complexities in both medicine and health care operations in order to improve quality, costs, and patient health outcomes.  In the past, the only option we had available to us to gather data that would inform us about what happens with patients and their care was to conduct scientific studies that generate new data.

These studies are critically important even today, but

a) they take years to conduct,

b) they only collect a small fraction of data that might be useful, and

c) they can be difficult to interpret when treating patients that do not look like patients in the research study.

Today, we have many technologies that generate large amounts of data.  So we no longer have a shortage of data; we have a shortage of insights.

By leveraging advanced analytics with these growing repositories of data, we can now ask questions like “what happens to patients in the real world?” to gain insights:

  • which patients tend to benefit from which treatments
  • which drugs cost patients more without providing any additional benefits
  • how can we configure hospitals to be able to see more patients faster, and many other topics

Your biggest hope for the future of this program

We want to optimize the care of every patient.

“Precision medicine” refers to the idea that care providers and their patients are able to make more personalized treatment decisions by making maximum use of available information.   We want to provide the insights powering precision health care.

You have assembled a team of 40 data analytics experts – whose idea was this, when did it launch, and what has been your role?

As part of my work in the [UNC Health Care] Innovation Center, I had the opportunity to convene a group of our health care experts from across the state to dig deeper into these ideas.

We focused on a core question:

What should UNC Health Care do to become a national leader in data-driven health care?

This team worked for six months to evaluate what works well with data and analytics today, and what could we be doing to pursue new advancements and innovations.  I presented the eventual business plan to UNC Health Care leadership, and they agreed that this was the right direction for our health system and our patients.

I applied for and was offered the opportunity to lead this new organization, called Enterprise Analytics and Data Sciences (EADS), as UNC Health Care’s first Chief Analytics Officer.

I hired my first two employees exactly two years ago (May 2016), and we have been building the organization since that time.

What triggered your original interest in data analytics?

I’ve always been a scientist at heart.  While most kids idolized sports figures or pop stars, I read as much Carl Sagan as I could find.

Sagan’s passion for science – and in particular, using data to help us understand the world around us – has been the foundation behind both my academic training and my career.

Why did you decide to move to UNC?

After writing a book on the opportunities I had observed for health care to better use data and analytics (“Health Analytics: Gaining the Insights to Transform Health Care,” Wiley Publishing, 2013), I was looking for a place where I could actually pursue some of those innovations and growth.

I spoke to a number of pharmaceutical companies that were continuing to invest in emerging business areas like this, but I wanted to do something much closer to individual patients.

I was fortunate that UNC Health Care System and the UNC School of Medicine have a well-established Center for Health Innovation under the direction of Dr. David Rubinow and Carol Lewis, and they agreed to bring me on to start pursuing my ideas.

What are you learning as the program begins to mature?

There were many things we anticipated would be challenges going into this strategy: finding great employee talent, wrangling data, and developing new teams across clinical and business stakeholders, for example.

Some of those expectations turned out to be true; for example, data wrangling in health care is really hard.

Some of our expectations turned out to be false. For example, we have had an excellent experience in recruiting great talent because many people want to feel their professional work is making a meaningful contribution to society.

And some things we’ve learned were not anticipated when we first started.  For example, we knew there would be plenty of demand for this work, but it can be very challenging to decide how best to invest your resources when there are so many impactful improvements on the potential to-do list.  We are learning to be more focused and selective in picking those improvements with the highest potential benefits for patients and care providers.

How is UNC Health Care positioning itself as a leader in big data?

UNC Health Care is one of only two health care systems in the world to have ever been recognized by the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) as having achieved the highest level of analytical maturity (see https://www.himssanalytics.org/amam for additional background).

Combined with our other data-related awards (for example, see http://news.unchealthcare.org/news/2018/april/unc-health-care-achieves-highest-rank-possible-in-three-health-it-categories) and partnerships with firms like Apple (http://news.unchealthcare.org/news/2018/january/unc-health-care-collaborates-with-apple as well as http://news.unchealthcare.org/news/2017/april/popular-iphone-app-to-study-postpartum-depressesion-expands-to-new-countries-modules-and-android-version ), UNC Health Care has established itself as a national leader in the fields of analytics and big data.

Coming next: What are Jason Burke’s biggest concerns? And how is artificial intelligence being used to advance the UNC Health Care analytics effort.