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The Daryl Morey of Healthcare

By Henry Abbott

This weekend's New York Times Sunday magazine had a story about how data collection is changing healthcare.

It's a sensitive issue. This is your doctor we're talking about. The last thing you want is for that person to be an automaton. This is as much art as science! Keep your studies to yourself!

I get that feeling.

And I know it from talking about basketball, where a ton of people still really believe that coaches and players know best and everyone else ought to shut up, especially if they're telling about things they learned from Excel.

But then I also understand that the dataheads are often right. Analyzing spreadsheets can tell you things that work that you wouldn't know about otherwise, and if you're in the business of doing the best job possible, you can't ignore all that information.

And this is the information age, right?

To me the question isn't whether or not we'll be getting valuable insights from data analysis. That horse is out of the barn and halfway to Houston. The question is how to integrate that kind of insight with the human intuition we also want. David Leonhardt writes about a doctor, Brent James, a doctor and a datahead who is a central player in the healthcare reform debate:

This debate between intuition and empiricism is as old as Plato, who thought that knowledge came from intuitive reasoning, and Aristotle, who preferred observation. The argument has seemed especially intense lately, as one field after another has struggled to define the role of human judgment in a data-saturated society. The police officials in New York City who overhauled crime fighting were classic empiricists. The debate over education reform revolves around how well teachers can be measured and what the consequences of those measurements should be. These disagreements can sometimes be exaggerated, because everyone agrees that intuition and empiricism both have a role to play. But the fight over how to balance the two is a real one. ...

The overall record of decision-making approaches that are based mostly on intuition is far weaker than the record of decisions based mostly on data. To give just one example, an article in the journal Psychological Assessment, analyzing dozens of studies that compared clinical judgments with data-based diagnoses, found that clinical judgments were better in only a few instances. The two approaches were equally accurate about half of the time, but the data-based diagnoses substantially outperformed human judgment in nearly half of the studies. And with data collection becoming ever cheaper, Kahneman says that the number of occasions in which an intuitive approach beats a systemic one is getting smaller all the time.