Does the Oracle-Cerner deal represent a digital breakthrough in healthcare?

Obstacles in data exchange remain for industry.

I recently wrote about the still frustratingly large gap between the vision of a world of tech-enabled patient empowerment and the reality of Big Tech’s struggles to disrupt the healthcare industry. Oracle’s acquisition of Cerner is the latest attempt by Big Tech to make waves in the space. In principle, the deal makes a lot of sense. Cerner helps Oracle build out its healthcare business unit, and it immediately becomes a solidly entrenched healthcare player. From Cerner’s perspective, this will help the company access top talent and leverage Oracle’s established technology infrastructures and analytics capabilities.

Improvements to healthcare professional experience

Oracle has stated that one of the initial outcomes of this deal will be improved user-experience tools for healthcare professionals. In the press release announcing the deal, Larry Ellison said that the company plans to “provide our overworked medical professionals with a new generation of easier-to-use digital tools that enable access to information via a hands-free voice interface to secure cloud applications.”

More explicitly, Mike Sicilia, executive vice president of vertical industries at Oracle, said, “We will make Cerner’s systems much easier to learn and use by making Oracle’s hands-free voice digital assistant the primary interface to Cerner’s clinical systems. This will allow medical professionals to spend less time typing on computer keyboards and more time caring for patients.”

These are exciting developments. If healthcare professionals can more easily input information into electronic health systems and use that information as they make treatment decisions, efficiency will increase, access to information will improve, and patients will benefit.

Beyond this UX advancement, I see potential for Oracle to leverage its extensive analytics capabilities to mine the mountains of data Cerner has in its database and place insights into the hands of physicians to help them improve decision-making. However, developments on this front are purely speculation, at this point.

Roadblocks to patient empowerment remain

A few roadblocks still stand in the way of the widespread exchange of health data that will facilitate patient empowerment and centricity. For one, there are many electronic health systems—big ones like Cerner and Epic but also smaller, more specialty-focused systems. Each has its own formats and protocols, and providers further customize their platforms, hindering information sharing. While the federal government has released a framework for health information exchange and has put in place rules against blocking access to electronic health information, enforcement mechanisms designed to improve information sharing remain wanting.

There’s also the question about incentives and intention. Is the cost/benefit analysis associated with facilitating this data exchange clear enough for providers to motivate their eager compliance? After all, full compliance with the government’s guidelines can be costly and time consuming to execute. Consequences for noncompliance are unclear (as noted above), so slow-walking compliance with health information exchange rules seems like a low-risk proposition.

Without common protocols across electronic health systems that facilitate the free flow of data and information between them, physicians and patients won’t reap the benefits of any analytics advancements Oracle makes as a result of its acquisition of Cerner. So, while the UX enhancements Oracle has described are a step in the right direction, I expect the immediate ripple effects from this deal to be minimal, given all these dynamics.

Rohit Gupta is vice president of analytics strategy and transformation at Beghou Consulting