Big Data: How it can make you healthier

We recently put the spotlight on Florence Nightingale, a woman who not only revolutionized the nursing profession, but also established a strong tie between healthcare and statistical analysis. Since that time, the healthcare industry has clearly made fantastic progress, as well as extensive use of statistics. In recent years, it has become clear that the use of big data can transform healthcare if given the chance, and so many healthcare providers have begun the transition. It’s not complete yet, but great strides are being made all the time. So what does this mean and how will it affect you? Why  should the healthcare industry use big data?

1. Patient care personalization When data is readily available and digitized, it is easier for healthcare providers to access that information and help patients make informed decisions. An individual patient will go to many healthcare providers in his or her lifetime, including hospitals, family doctors, and specialists. With the employment of big data, all of these providers could share information quickly and have a complete patient picture at their disposal at a moment’s notice. This can help doctors make stronger connections in patient health histories to treat patients more effectively and economically. The drugs you take can also be specifically tailored to your DNA and, therefore, work better. Here's an example.

2. Understand and fight diseases and disorders With big data, scientists can analyze large numbers of patient cases to determine correlations based on gender, race, age, lifestyle, blood type, genetics, health history, and more. The more information available, the better they can find patterns among individual patients, groups of patients, individual or related diseases, and DNA. With this knowledge, it becomes easier for doctors to predict and prevent diseases. It is thought that much disease prevention can include teaching people how to prevent many future health problems by suggesting changes in eating, drinking, and physical activity habits, or even addressing genetic problems before symptoms even make themselves known. In addition, it is increasingly possible to detect and respond to infectious disease outbreaks in a timely and effective manner.

It is believed that roughly 20% of patients released from U.S. hospitals need to be readmitted within 30 days, which has become costly and troublesome. Eric Horowitz, a computer scientists and physician at Microsoft Research has built a system for the Washington Hospital Center near Washington, D.C. that can analyze hundreds of thousands of emergency room visits and find correlations. He has found factors that contribute to patient readmission within the 30-day mark, which helps doctors, nurses, and technicians react and potentially change treatment plans. (Want to know more? There are many opportunities for tech start-ups in the healthcare industry.)

3. Increase value and reduce expenditures According to a 2011 McKinsey Global report (read about it here), the “effective and creative use of big data could create $300 billion in value for the US healthcare system” and reduce expenditures by 8%. This can be accredited to more accurate diagnosis and treatment and fewer costly mistakes. What may be more interesting to you, however, is that the use of big data can decrease your overall costs and keep you healthier. Why? You’ll be less likely to require multiple lab visits and test treatments. If you’re healthier and receiving more effective treatment, your insurance and individual visit payments will be less frequent and expensive.

What obstacles must the healthcare industry overcome when embracing big data?

1. Security Most of the information in healthcare is kept private, and for good reason. While the benefits of making this information available can be many, it’s absolutely necessary that those in charge of the data maintain a high level of privacy and anonymity where required. To do this, they must adopt a privacy by design policy, in which private is the automatic default setting for information. Therefore, a patient must choose to let others use their personal information. Patient anonymity can work even when patient information is made available for larger databases and names are omitted, which scientists can use to map DNA and disease patterns. The sharing of information gives scientists a better chance to determine these connections, so sometimes it actually comes down to simply asking patients for specific information. Some are concerned that hackers that are able to access the systems in which healthcare data is stored will have enormous amounts of sensitive, private information at their disposal. System managers will have to be vigilant and proactive in the protection of this data.

2. Change healthcare industry culture Currently, many software systems in hospitals and doctor offices are not user-friendly, so there is a need for a streamlined process. However, spending money on new technology is not an automatic improvement. Enterprises need to transform psychologically, culturally, and organizationally in order to truly take advantage of the explosion of big data. This includes employee training and a restructuring of company culture, possibly even human resources. The transformation will be a slower process, but it is integral to the switch to big data utilization.

It seems to me the use of big data in healthcare is a giant step forward. Right now in the United States, there is much debate over the healthcare system in general, the new healthcare bill dubbed Obamacare in particular. I believe that big data can help alleviate these problems. After all, when used correctly, it can promote more transparency in the system while maintaining privacy where necessary. Looks like we’re moving in the right direction to a more open and healthier world. Sounds like a win-win to me!

How else do you think big data is changing the healthcare industry? What do you think will be the greatest challenge for healthcare providers?

To your health! The Captain