Why Informatics Could Transform Cancer Treatments

A University of Pennsylvania medical informatics expert describes how healthcare organizations can crunch the numbers to their advantage.

Credit: NANETS

If a physician were to spend a year reading 2 journal articles per night, that person would remain nearly 1,000 years behind the latest medical research. If only 1% of the literature were relevant, the provider would still lag 10 years behind the most cutting-edge knowledge.

That’s according to Peter E. Gabriel, MD, MSE, chief oncology informatics officer for the Penn Medicine Abramson Cancer Center. Also the director of informatics for the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Pennsylvania, he described the information overload facing the healthcare industry at the 10th Annual NANETS Symposium last week in Philadelphia. But properly capturing and using sound data could help oncology and healthcare as a whole move forward in the coming years, he said. In fact, informatics stands to pass drug development and immunotherapies as the biggest game-changer in fighting cancer, he said.

“I think that this whole area—being better at managing data and information—is really the key to what I would call the next era of advancement in oncology,” Gabriel said.

Informatics can drive change in 3 specific areas of oncology: precision medicine, value-based care, and research. These sectors, of course, are key for most every corner of medicine these days.

Instead of leaning solely on their guts and experience, physicians must leverage information in electronic health records (EHR) when providing care for patients, Gabriel noted. EHRs can reveal secrets of micro and macro issues, resulting in optimized, personalized treatments, he said.

And with predictive analytics, providers can understand different options may affect their patients. “Clinicians tend to think that we know that stuff by intuition, experience, and judgment,” Gabriel said, “Computers can do a much better job if they have the data.”

By 2020, experts have projected, the total cost of cancer care could reach $175 billion, a 40% increase over 1 decade. But outcomes haven’t improved at the same rate, Gabriel said. It’s important for oncologists and healthcare systems to increase value—or health insurers will likely make cuts, he said.

Quality of care, a major part of overall value, is an area where informatics allows for concrete measurements, Gabriel said. Hospitals can then identify where they need to improve and develop action plans, he said. Administrators may even use the data to see which clinicians are outliers and need to adjust how they choose which therapies to prescribe.

Widespread, post-clinical-trial data collection can also get a boost from informatics. Gabriel said trials enroll only 3% of the population. “That’s not a good thing,” he added. “We need to find a way to learn from what we’re doing every day.”

Multi-institution data registries can serve as an ever better testing ground for hypotheses. The information would come more quickly and cost less, he said. It would, however, require hospitals to better track, structure, and share data.