How Big Data Will Change the Face of Healthcare

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Companies that collect data may save your life one day. Many of us think of big data as a sophisticated way for companies to market products to consumers. Imagining that our transactions, emails, internet searches and photos are being recorded can feel intrusive. If we consider the same massive amounts of information in the hands of scientists, the potential for positive change becomes obvious.

We create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day. Our ability to organize, interpret and provide access to the data will improve healthcare. Big data can unite medical professionals and virtually eliminate physical barriers to care. Advances in data technology encourage the potential to improve the quality of medical care worldwide.

An example of these advances comes from biostatistician Scott Zeger, who highlights that we now have the ability to decode all 3 billion “letters” of the human genome in less than a day. When it was first decoded in the year 2000, it took a whole decade to complete.

Big data introduces the potential for an infrastructure of health information that will drive the future of care and research.

Access to Information

Scientific studies have been transcribed and catalogued to provide doctors with a searchable database. This collection of information and its ability to be accessed with ease allows a doctor to gain insight on a topic that they lack experience in.

The practical use of this data is in the moment — when a doctor is at a patient’s bedside. In a recent National Public Radio (NPR) segment, the guest recalled a story of a seriously ill child with a rare condition. The team of doctors could not decide whether a particular medicine would be too risky. None of them had experience with the child’s disease and its rarity meant very little studies had been completed to show the risk level.

One of the doctors searched the hospital’s database for more information, and provided their findings to the team. After a discussion, they proceeded with the medication, and the child recovered.

This story illustrates the key point. No matter how big data is, it will never replace human decision-making.

Wearables, Data and Prevention

Data also offers the healthcare industry a way to strengthen preventative medicine. Long before we need our team of doctors to make a serious decision, numbers as simple as those collected in our Fitbit can change our lives.

Sensors in wearable technology are able to collect information that can be shared with your medical provider. With 20 percent of adults in America already owning of a piece wearable technology, and with the rate of growth expected to increase exponentially, the implications for big data are huge.

Tracking stats such as blood pressure would be valuable to a cardiologist, and could provide the ability to adopt a treatment program before their patient is at their next visit. Sharing this data with your medical providers will require proper systems in place to ensure privacy, but can be a powerful tool for monitoring care. The benefit to providing targeted preventative medicine is huge. It not only increases odds of a favorable outcome, but also reduces costs overall.

Information collected can also be compared in big segments to identify trends. The same blood pressure pattern tracked over time may show an increased risk for a heart attack. This information, when shared worldwide, may help not only you, but also patients for years to come. When thinking about the bigger picture, your wearable data is similar to participating in an ongoing medical study. Even your daily activity will benefit others.

Efficiency Improvements

Healthcare as an industry must consider cost. At the managerial level, big data is changing the way decisions are made. Overall, the goal is to operate efficiently and provide quality service.

One example of big data in managerial healthcare is the purchasing of medical equipment. Medical professionals are better able to put emerging technologies to work in their facilities if they can show the return on investment for these big ticket purchases. Data provides them the ability to present their reason for an updated piece of equipment to those who make that decision.

Data is also used to reduce the amount of fraud in healthcare. This is especially important for managed care systems such as Medicare. Reducing the amount of budget waste allows funds to be allocated for use in other areas.

Future Challenges

The challenges and economic opportunity behind big data, especially within the healthcare industry, have been noted as early as 2011. Reports projected that the creative use of big data could influence quality and efficiency, creating more than $300 billion in value every year. Part of this revenue would come from  reducing healthcare expenditures by eight percent. As the amount of data collected grows, the struggle to process, store, access and benefit from it multiplies.

Data needs to be protected and yet easily reached across platforms. Right now there are “houses” of data that don’t all share information. The collection and storage of data is a business in itself which poses an interesting question to the healthcare industry: How do we access data that is owned by multiple companies? The answer is to create networks that work cohesively. This will require financial and time investments and skilled individuals to achieve.

The future of data in healthcare has powerful promise. The industry will benefit with solutions that arise from noticeable trends and efficiencies revealed from analysis of big data.

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