Advice From a Health IT 'Data Ferret'

Farzad Mostashari, a visiting fellow at nonprofit public policy organization The Brookings Institution, is known as a leader in health IT -- a reputation earned in large part while coordinating the federal government's electronic health record initiative. But think of him, if you'd like, as a "data ferret."

Farzad Mostashari
Farzad Mostashari

That's how he sees himself, at least. "I just want the data. One day I might have the chance to look at it, but for now I just want to get it in, get it in, get it in," Mostashari told audience members attending his morning keynote at today's SAS Health Analytics Executive Conference (register now). But, he said, he's working on fixing his data obsession, calling himself a "recovering data ferret."

Anybody with a similar love for data, in all of its voluminous glory, should be working on recovery as well, Mostashari suggested. Don't think in terms of volume, he said, but of value.

Start with a hypothesis. That way, he added, you can say, "This is the data I want, and this is what I'm going to measure."

From a healthcare perspective, focusing on volume to value means quality will be measured and rewarded, total affordable cost is going to be rewarded, and safety and appropriateness of care are going to matter, he said. It means the digitization of data, as well as of workflows. This latter point is vital.

"I've had the privilege to help lead the digitization of healthcare, going from electronic health records being rare to being the norm," Mostashari told the 1,000 or so live and virtual attendees. The switch from paper to EHR is so important, not only because it provides the ability to harvest data and analyze the data, but then to feed the resulting information and knowledge into workflows. "That's the point at which we can actually change something."

Digitization provides the opportunity to rethink workflows. "Don't just pave over the cow paths," said Mostashari, in reference to the folklore around Boston's early streets. "Streamline processes and find opportunities to change within those processes."

Besides encouraging a value mindset, Mostashari, a doctor who has also worked at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, kicked off the conference with thoughts on a wide range of issues central to healthcare today... affordable care, population health, healthcare information exchanges, and consumer orientation. He ended with a couple of notes on data use and data privacy, as I will, too.

First, he warned, never surprise your board or your customers with your data. "If people are surprised with what you're doing with data, that will be your third rail," he said. That said, "people are willing to share information if given the opportunity. What cuts through a lot of privacy concerns is affirmative, meaningful choice."

The SAS Health Analytics Executive Conference runs through this afternoon, with a closing key at 3:00 p.m. ET by John Crowley, chairman and CEO of Amicus Therapeutics, and inspiration for the movie Extraordinary Measures. You can register as a virtual guest here.

Would you, like Mostashari, consider yourself to be a data ferret -- always on the lookout for more, more, more? How have you tamed your data desires?

— Beth Schultz, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn pageFriend me on Facebook, Editor in Chief,

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Beth Schultz, Editor in Chief

Beth Schultz has more than two decades of experience as an IT writer and editor.  Most recently, she brought her expertise to bear writing thought-provoking editorial and marketing materials on a variety of technology topics for leading IT publications and industry players.  Previously, she oversaw multimedia content development, writing and editing for special feature packages at Network World. In particular, she focused on advanced IT technology and its impact on business users and in so doing became a thought leader on the revolutionary changes remaking the corporate datacenter and enterprise IT architecture. Beth has a keen ability to identify business and technology trends, developing expertise through in-depth analysis and early adopter case studies. Over the years, she has earned more than a dozen national and regional editorial excellence awards for special issues from American Business Media, American Society of Business Press Editors,, and others.

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Re: Ferreting for the business
  • 5/27/2014 4:47:21 PM

I think you mean support that deliverable, Maryam!

Re: Ferreting for the business
  • 5/27/2014 1:25:53 PM

That I think the problem surfaces in the analytics process. Researchers are intrinsically curious that often piques your interest and can leave them into other hypotheses. The challenge is to ensure that these hypotheses will benefit the business and not just provide additional information. There's a fine line between being knowledgeable and providing useful information that drives revenue. I find one of the best techniques is to storyboard your final report to a sure the analysis you are performing will support that undeliverable .

Re: Ferreting for the business
  • 5/21/2014 8:14:56 AM

Hi Maryam, so... what's typically the first sign that you're going in the wrong direction with the data you're collecting or thinking about collecting? And, how do you stop yourself from collecting it anyways, even if not for the current business goal. Don't you face the temptation to collect it anyways in case you might need it for another purpose... eventually?

Ferreting for the business
  • 5/20/2014 10:19:05 PM


I too am in recovery it's a lifelong process for the curios. I love to know more but now balance it with what will actually move a business decision and impact the business. If the ferreting is not in line with these goals I step away and reappraise what data I really need to impact the business. We used to call it suffering from analysis paralysis in my early days. Its the difference between need to know and nice to know.

Re: Privacy surprises
  • 5/18/2014 7:00:53 PM

And by that token, we're also seeing a rise in paranoia over the past 2 decades. We're scared of everything. 20-somethings grew up in an age where they were being told to be cautious of everything, and a small way to rebel may be to brush health insurance in wake of some "real" problems.

Re: Privacy surprises
  • 5/15/2014 7:41:45 PM

I agree with Phoenix and kq4ym - young people have no reason to share lots of information with health care providers. They're all going to live forever, right? Just ask them and they'll tell you.

20-somethings are dealing with a lot of new worries - student loan payments, buying cars, paying the rent/mortgage. Health topics fall somewhere after life insurance and retirement planning, which aren't getting much mindshare either.

Re: Privacy surprises
  • 5/15/2014 7:15:29 PM

Are older people more willing to trust their providers and share data with them because they'll potentially benefit from the analytics? Or do you think they're more naturally distrustful?



@Beth I would think they are naturally more distrustful. The more wisdom and experience one has leads to skepticism on just about every topic.

Ok, In my case it does ! : ) 

Re: Privacy surprises
  • 5/15/2014 7:10:17 PM

"...I say trust. Do I trust that this pharmacy or this hospital or this medical practice is going to use my data for my benefit? "

@PC    Good point. Do I trust them ? No.   Why should I ?

The Cost of Data Collection
  • 5/15/2014 7:08:10 PM

While I respect Mr. Mostashari's love of data.  He does not seem to be much concerned with the cost of storage or the safeguarding of it.  

I am sure these are considerations but when collecting data for data's sake - one needs to keep these things in mind as well.

Re: Privacy surprises
  • 5/15/2014 2:07:21 PM

The younger folks also have the belief that they're healthy and going to live "foreever" so there's not a lot of movement towards visiting health care providers. While, the older adults have felt the pains of time creeping more frequently into their lives. In the end, the technology is certainly going to show some amazing improvements in the system over time.

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