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Why a Grocery Store Likes Health Data

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The CEO of a family-owned grocery store chain wrote a letter to New York State lawmakers to support $65 million worth of spending on a computer system for health information in the state.

That grocer was Danny Wegman, and that project is the Statewide Health Information Network, aka the SHIN-NY.

In his letter beginning "Dear New York Legislator," Wegman identified several benefits he expected would flow out of the massive, multi-million dollar health computer project, believe it would:

1. Improve health care for all New Yorkers,
2. Lower health care costs, through reducing hospital readmission rates and reducing duplicate testing, and
3. Lead to health data "liquidity."

It's easy to understand #1 and #2. But what does the movement of health information across a state data pipeline/network have to do with improving health, and why would a grocer care?

Wegman explained in the third paragraph:

When a patient's providers use electronic health records, they have access to a patient's uploaded medical information including medication, lab and radiology reports. This can be critical in emergency room situations if a patient is unconscious or unable to communicate. It is also important for chronically-ill patients who need several doctors to collaborate while addressing different aspects of their disease.

Wegman then talked about the experience in the company's headquarters town of Rochester, N.Y., which has had a regional health information organization -- a local (13-county) version of what the New York state SHIN would look like.

Wegman -- who leads one of the fastest-growing food retailers in the United States -- knows something about being smart in business, and as an employer he knows that we can't manage what we don't measure: If we don't move health information out of paper files locked in metal cabinets, we can't know the inputs into our health care. What procedure or drug therapy was used in a particular patient? Where did that operation occur? Which physician did the procedure?

Nor can we quantify the outputs in terms of patients' health outcomes. Did she survive? Did he return to work? Did she run that marathon, or did he walk again after hip surgery?

And the bottom-line: How much did we spend on that patient? Was the course of treatment the most appropriate one, or could different "inputs" (drugs, procedures, hospital days, remote patient monitoring to the home, mobile health apps, physical therapy) be combined to drive an even better outcome for the same or lower cost?

That's what underlies Wegman's ask of New York state lawmakers.

Getting data moving through a state health information exchange also enables health citizens -- people, consumers, caregivers -- to get their data into their own hands through hospital and health plan computer portals, and via mobile apps and interfaces.

It's also instructive that a player in the food industry is supportive of health data. More people are making the connection between food and health, and retail data is already being collected at grocery store cash registers. When consumers' food data can marry up with personal health data, we can make even better decisions about smarter grocery shopping to bolster health. With more grocery chains hiring nutritionists, look for food -- and Big Data -- to play growing roles in healthy communities.

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