Inmar Inc. | June 29, 2015

So which is it — big data or small data? The answer is yes — for all the talk about big data analytics that business can bring to healthcare, there's a new run for the small data — the everyday health information people are beginning to share through health-monitoring apps on mobile technology.

Big data analytics, like Inmar mines to unfold the mysteries of shopper behavior, have great capability to shed new insight on population health management initiatives. The vast repositories of data piling up in electronic health records (EHR), hold a wealth of information that will be a powerful tool in shaping community health initiatives and other large-scale efforts to better understand disease, health and treatments.

There's still something missing: A complete portrait of the patient. The advent of health apps looks like the beginning strokes of that painting. Even with all the data in EHRs, from a patient perspective those records are incomplete in a couple of ways: First, they're segmented because they reside in different systems with different providers; secondly, they're episodic — they only have data based on when the patient sees a doctor or has a procedure done.

That's where small data comes in. With people using mobile apps to track their activity, weight, sleep, exercise, diet and so forth, they enter that information daily, or at the very least, on a more frequent basis than their doctor visits. The doctor doesn't have a full picture of how the patient's health fluctuates day-to-day. For someone managing a condition such as diabetes or high blood pressure, that picture is worth its weight in gold, both to them and their doctor.

If a woman with diabetes is using a mobile app to track her blood-sugar and insulin dosage/frequency, patterns begin to emerge that paint that picture of how her disease behaves on a daily basis and how her body responds when she takes her medicine. That information, shared with her doctor, gives him a much more detailed idea of how diabetes really impacts her life. He can know what times of day her blood sugar dips or rises, how she feels before and after meals and at various times of day. From that, he can make specific recommendations for what actions to take that will keep her condition much more manageable.

This is where it gets really interesting. When we can combine her daily health data with some fundamental info about her overall health, her healthy choices can follow her even farther. Let's say that woman with diabetes has a loyalty card with her grocer. That generates a whole world of data on her shopping habits.

People with diabetes told Inmar in a survey last year that shopping for the right diabetes-friendly foods is difficult. But when she shares some health information with her grocer, something interesting can happen. The grocer can help her by generating shopping lists including items that help her manage diabetes — that can even be done with comparison to the types of products she typically buys, and recommend healthy products within those categories.

That can even go real-time. It's possible that a fully engaged patient, armed with the right health/shopping app, can receive more than just the diabetes-friendly shopping list. She could receive alerts if she unknowingly buys something that might be a complication with her diabetes. Her grocer can even equip the app to generate shopping lists that fulfill the ingredients in healthy recipes, making it easier to cook meals that help stabilize her diabetes.

Think how useful that could be to people with high blood pressure, cardiac disease, cholesterol, weight management and any number of conditions, and you begin to see the power of converging a person's data streams. The ability to combine her daily health data with her institutional health data and add that to her shopping data could very quickly change that woman's life.

Using that kind of "small-data" information to examine overall health-outcome trends can change the way people see their health, and it can change their relationship to their grocer, amplifying the concept of new "care circles" in a patient's life. The grocer gains a new identity bigger than just the store they like — they become a partner in their customers' health and well-being. The convergence of data streams brings the way grocers do business to a much more personal level, engaging people as individuals rather than representative of one demographic or another.

One important thing we learned from the diabetic patients in the survey last year was that, across the board, most people with chronic health issues do want to do a better job managing their health. This is only the start — it creates the tools that help patients make a difference for themselves. It begins the deeper details that start painting that patient portrait for an understanding of their health. The paint meets the canvas when that interaction between individuals, providers and retailers, connected through both their social and care networks, begins to drive a paradigm shift and a change in behavior and people's active participation in their care.

By sharing a little bit of information with their health partners, they can. By giving doctors and grocers more information to help them care for people, they can change lives. And that could be one of the biggest game-changers of our lifetime.

What do you think? Would you share your health information with your grocer if it made you healthier? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.