2019 Reading (and Listening) List for the Health and Healthcare Data Geek

I’m heading to Bustins Island, Maine, in a few days to swing in the hammock and sip watermelon mojitos — Nirvana. I’m looking forward to this summer’s trek even more than usual because leading data visualization expert (and my mentor and good friend) Steve Few will be joining me and my family there for a few days.

I’m so excited! I get to share my family’s favorite summer spot with an important person in my life, and he’s stuck on an island with me, so I can talk to him to my heart’s content (if you’re reading this, Steve, it’s not too late to run, LOL)!

It seems only fitting, therefore, that the first title on my 2019 Summer Reading List is Steve’s most recent book.

Book Recommendations

Big Data, Big Dupe: A little book about a big bunch of nonsense, by Stephen Few

Here’s an excerpt from Steve’s website about this book:

“Big Data, Big Dupe is a little book about a big bunch of nonsense… While others have written about the dangers of Big Data, Stephen Few reveals the deceit that belies its illusory nature. If “data is the new oil,” Big Data is the new snake oil. It isn’t real. It’s a marketing campaign that has distracted us for years from the real and important work of deriving value from data.”

As I told Steve, when I first learned that he was writing this book, I didn’t think I would be very interested in it. But I did read it, and as always his words compelled me to stop and think about my work using data very deeply. The warning bells that Steve rang most loudly for me signaled these points:

  • Big data as one or more concept[s] remains ill-defined.
  • There is no clear or empirical reason to accept big data advocates’ claims that the sheer volume of data allows us to abandon 21st-century statistical data science methodology and methods; in fact, doing so would be both foolhardy and dangerous.
  • Abandonment of a scientific approach to analyzing data would jeopardize the true, necessary promise of quantitative, evidence-driven decision-making.

This last point is especially sobering given the tremendous amount of work required to transform our health and healthcare system. Few’s book is a thought-provoking, quick and easy read that I heartily recommend.

Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America, by Beth Macy

There has been no shortage of news coverage about the opioid epidemic in the U.S., so much so that I admit to being numbed by it at times. I am therefore especially grateful for Macy’s book. She uses first-person interviews to look squarely at the lives of young heroin users and their long-suffering parents, the drug-dealers and the cops, and the judges, doctors, and health activists struggling to fight the epidemic.

The author also details the actions of pharmaceutical company executives who aggressively marketed opioids, and uses data to help us to understand these people’s and companies’ truly disturbing actions.

You were probably hoping for lighter, more escapist reading from my summer list; but if you can settle instead for an important and enlightening narrative about a serious problem that needs addressing in the health and healthcare space, then I highly recommend this book.

Podcast Recommendations

Every evening in my house, right around dinnertime, I open the conversation with “I heard this really interesting podcast today…”

I love podcasts because when they’re done well, they are wildly interesting, informative, and entertaining. And I get to hear people talk on subjects I would never have access to in any other way.

Like all of you, I am often just too busy to sit and read as much as I would like. I can listen to a podcast while I’m driving or flying, walking the dogs or cooking dinner — or when I can’t sleep at 2:00 AM. You get the idea.

The Design of Business

This podcast is recorded at the Yale School of Management and is about how design works within complex organizations to shape decisions, products, and more.

Guests include clients from many industries and designers in many fields, and I absolutely love learning about the challenges and successes of how design, when embraced fully, has the power to improve all aspects of the work teams do, and the products and services they deliver.

Here’s an episode I especially like about a new design for an insulin kit for children with Type 1 diabetes:

And another with Somi Kim, Senior Director of Healthcare Solutions at Johnson & Johnson. I LOVE the way Kim describes her work: healthcare, she says, is about more than just products and procedures. It’s about observing people and learning about their needs. To be a designer now, one has to consider the breadth of an experience and to prioritize what will make the best difference for that person — someone who isn’t, at heart, a patient or a healthcare provider, but a human being.

We can’t, Kim says, do this in a vacuum, alone; we need to partner with many, including those whom we want to benefit from our products and solutions.

And there you have them: my annual hammock reading and listening recommendations. And hey: if you’re in the neighborhood, stop by! There’s most likely a watermelon mojito here with your name on it.

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