Perils of data-driven equity: Safety-net care and big data’s elusive grasp on health inequality
Large-scale data systems are increasingly envisioned as tools for justice, with big data analytics offering a key opportunity to advance health equity. Health systems face growing public pressure to collect data on patient “social factors,” and advocates and public officials seek to leverage such data sources as a means of system transformation. Despite the promise of this “data-driven” strategy, there is little empirical work that examines big data in action directly within the sites of care expected to transform. In this article, I present a case study on one such initiative, focusing on a large public safety-net health system’s initiation of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) data collection within the clinical setting. Drawing from ethnographic fieldwork and in-depth interviews with providers, staff, and administrators, I highlight three main challenges that elude big data’s grasp on inequality: (1) provider and staff’s limited understanding of the social significance of data collection; (2) patient perception of the cultural insensitivity of data items; and (3) clinic need to balance data requests with competing priorities within a constrained time window. These issues reflect structural challenges within safety-net care that big data alone are unable to address in advancing social justice. I discuss these findings by considering the present data-driven strategy alongside two complementary courses of action: diversifying the health professions workforce and clinical education reform. To truly advance justice, we need more than “just data”: we need to confront the fundamental conditions of social inequality.