Data analytics: bringing Moneyball to medicine

Billy Beane's storied approach to building a winning baseball team is a hit in healthcare.


The book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis was published in 2003. The Oscar-nominated film it inspired, starring Brad Pitt, premiered in 2011.

But the true story of the Oakland Athletics and general manager Billy Beane’s data analytics approach to putting together a winning baseball team on limited funds continues to have a following well outside the world of sports.

Exhibit A: Healthcare

Andy Bindman, former Director of the Agency for Health Research & Quality, gave a powerful nod to the film when he recently stepped down.

“In meetings with staff at AHRQ, I’ve described our challenge as bringing Moneyball to medicine,” said Bindman in a January 2017 LinkedIn article. “It’s my way of pointing out how major league sports have integrated data analytics into their workflow to improve team performance. I think there is a parallel opportunity for us in healthcare.”

Moneyball is essentially the story of two clashing philosophies: the traditional scouting system that relies on subjective assessments of players by baseball insiders, and the rigorous analysis of players’ stats, specifically on-base and batting percentages. The book argues that the reliance on data analytics allowed the Oakland A’s to compete against their far more moneyed rivals.

“For the most part, clinicians function like baseball ‘scouts.’ We bring a special knowledge to improving health informed by our experience,” said Bindman. “We are underperforming, however, by not making a stronger commitment to a data-driven, evidence-based approach. We have not mustered the courage Billy Beane showed in running his organization.”

Gianrico Farrugia, CEO of the Mayo Clinic Florida, said the usability of available medical data is a major hurdle.

“Our problem is not a lack of data anymore, it’s spurious data points,” said Farrugia during his keynote address at the NG Healthcare Summit. “We have to filter spurious data points out of the system while allowing relevant information to flow in from the home environment to inform our medical decision making.”

Frederick M. Cohan, professor of biology and environmental studies at Wesleyan University, sees forward progress being made in the sciences.

“As in baseball, the discovery of bacterial diversity has experienced a transition from relying on the subjective judgment of experts to objective and universal statistical methods,” said Cohan in a recent article in American Scientist. “Data are now poised to trump the intuition of experts and the “facts” that scientists have championed over the years.”

The Moneyball movie begins with a quote from baseball’s favorite son Mickey Mantle: “It’s unbelievable how much you don’t know about the game you’ve been playing all your life.” By consistently incorporating data analytics into the treatment and practice of medicine, hopefully healthcare practitioners – and the patients they serve – will all be winners.

 

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