Data Overload? Putting Statistics in Their Place

Updated on May 22, 2023
Health protection. Medical and health care documents on office table with smart phone and laptop and two colleagues discussing data in the background

Who doesn’t love curling up with a good spreadsheet by the pool? Or pouring over a pivot table with your first cup of coffee? For many of us in healthcare leadership this is our reality. Sometimes we are compelled by the inability to draw distinct boundaries between our personal and work environments. But mostly it is due to the attraction of the data itself. Let’s face it, leaders in the medical community love data and it drives nearly everything in our ecosystem. 

“If You Torture the Data Long Enough, It Will Confess” – Ronald Coase

Attend any healthcare conference and you will hear all the ways information can be made more accessible, timely, detailed, and predictive. You will see the term “Data-Driven” appear on CVs describing the virtue of candidates and used as a positive way to describe the decision-making processes within organizations. But, while data is a “must have” for effective leadership, data by itself is not a substitute for effective leadership.

Leading in the healthcare arena is difficult and accurate data is imperative for decision making in this environment. But because data is so omnipresent in the healthcare industry, a subtle cultural shift often occurs. Personal leadership qualities in the traditional sense (e.g., communication, motivation, collaboration, courage, decisiveness, accountability, etc.) can be replaced over time by the ability to extract, collate, and quickly present data sets. 

Drowning in the Data Pool

From there it becomes easy for an organization’s business approach to transition to one that believes every circumstance mandates a spreadsheet, a slide presentation, and of course, numerous meetings. All of these are obvious ways that we communicate data; however, they should be used judiciously. The law of diminishing returns is real. A never-ending tsunami of spreadsheets, slide decks, and meetings can quickly become mere background-noise for those we are attempting to connect with. 

Like many leaders, I’ve been guilty of thinking that the ultimate answer to any problem is just one more data-point away. However, in most cases, I have found that the holy grail of facts, figures, and statistics is elusive. This obsession with data mining can come at the expense of traditional leadership and create delays in decisive action. After all, what better way to “kick the can down the road” when a difficult decision is required than to call for the next round of deep dives into the data pool? 

Smoke and Mirrors: Hiding Behind the Data

A related mistake that many organizations (and their leaders) make is allowing data “activity” to create a false sense of “productivity.” It becomes easy to accept often unnecessary “busywork” to support the illusion of a fully engaged team. We become comfortable in the cadence of the reporting requirements and the obligatory meetings that follow. For any healthcare organization, data in and of itself should not be the goal. 

The vital and often difficult question is: “What are we doing with the data to create better outcomes?” To influence your organization’s journey, you need to evaluate on a routine basis how you are leveraging your KPIs, metrics, and data sets. What have you done differently and what were the associated results directly attributable to actions taken on the data you have gathered? More importantly, what insights are you personally bringing to the decision-making table? If you have trouble answering these questions, it is time to step back and reassess your – and your organization’s – relationship with leadership, data, and outcomes. 

Statistics Cannot Substitute Leaders

Steve Jobs once said, “Humans are tool builders. And we create things to amplify ourselves.” Technology is a tool that was built to produce data, no different than a manufacturing assembly line that churns out parts. It is up to us as leaders to take those building blocks and create something meaningful from the sum. In a world where artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are becoming ubiquitous, it is easy to forget that nothing can replace the human vision of innovation.

Ultimately decision-making input for leaders should come from a variety of sources, such as the reports everyone sees on a routine basis (e.g., spreadsheets, benchmarking reports, KPI dashboards, trend analysis, etc.). But input from your own “personal” data warehouse is equally important. Lessons learned from previous successes and failures, reading the room, understanding group dynamics, one-on-one discussions designed to seek understanding and build engagement, your moral compass, and the “gut” level intuition that is a result of all these variables should also be key contributors to the process. 

With all of that said, another quote from Stephen Few comes to mind: “Numbers have an important story to tell. They rely on you to give them a voice.” As leaders in healthcare, we not only need to tell that story, but also use our own personal data warehouse to draw successful conclusions. 

Monty Pate copy
Montgomery Pate

Montgomery Pate is an Executive Consultant of Practice Solutions, which is a national healthcare consulting firm serving independent practices, practice groups, Managed Services Organizations (MSOs), and health plans and is a subsidiary of the TDC Group, the nation’s largest physician-owned malpractice insurer. For more information visit the company’s website at or contact Montgomery Pate directly at [email protected].