Three ways big data continues to transform healthcare

The industry's late adopters need to start investing in the information and systems that are changing the face of healthcare.
By Karin Ratchinsky
07:20 AM

Most of us probably remember when a certain big box retailer, thanks to sophisticated data collection and analytics, beat a father to the discovery of his teen daughter's pregnancy… And those of us who do are likely still cringing. But when it comes to the evolution of healthcare as we know it, Big Data isn't all that bad. In fact, Big Data has unbridled potential to transform the healthcare industry in ways that promise more proactive, more informed and more efficient care. Here's how.

With Big Data Comes Intelligence and Innovation.

The HITECH Act spurred widespread adoption of electronic health records (EHR) and as a result we're seeing a rush of data-centric technologies that integrate with and elaborate on the wealth of collective health information that is now at our fingertips. Electronic triggers derived from algorithms are being used to flag EHRs for everything from hypertension to certain types of cancers for earlier diagnosis and treatment. Infection-control software can identify hospital-derived infections by analyzing records and lab results for faster intervention and better prevention of infections that occur after treatment or surgery. 3D human anatomy models based on imaging data are revolutionizing the way health professionals understand and address the impact of certain health conditions on organs and systems by depicting symptoms on a molecular level. Eventually, this technology could be personalized to offer a comprehensive, virtual representation of an individual's health. What's more, providers are tapping into clinical and triage statistics to better manage their resources and reduce costs related to staffing, transfers and empty beds. 

Big Data and Patient Engagement go Hand-in-Hand.

Big Data is getting 'smarter' every day. Beyond wrist bands and shoe inserts, consumers can (and do) select from an ever-growing list of high-tech gear designed to track and collect heart rates, sleep habits, steps, moves, miles and more. But as the healthcare industry looks to shift patients' thinking toward proactive awareness and management of health, providers must first seek to understand their behaviors and sentiments by finding ways to take the broader view. This is where Big Data comes in.

While our smart watches monitor our every movement and restless twitch each night, they also capture vital information that, when coupled with other trackable data, can be used to identify potential lurking health risks – for example, frequent insomnia and a consistently elevated heart rate could signal risk for heart disease. Big Data is the key to unlocking individuals' engagement and accountability in their own health, and that of their family members, which, in turn, can reduce the frequency of ER visits and hospital readmissions.

Big Data is Driving Enhanced Security Measures.

Health-related data is coveted among hackers who recognize the personal information contained in medical records and systems can be even more lucrative than data held by retailers and banks. In fact, a recent study finds that the healthcare industry is 200 percent more likely to fall victim to data theft than other market sectors. With all this risk, it might seem that the obstacles to harnessing Big Data in healthcare are insurmountable. But for each new storyline of a hack, there are also advances in security that show potential in securing protected information so that the industry can continue to benefit from the unbounded possibilities of Big Data. Some measures are hardly new, but have seen great improvement in recent years, such as encryption technology, firewalls and anti-virus software. Others have arisen in response to the proliferation of devices and the Internet of the Things, including mobile device management and data loss prevention tools that are a fundamental part of any sound BYOD policy, as well as programs that strip personal identifiable information from EMRs before analysis. To realize the full potential of Big Data, the healthcare industry must continue to address the safety and security of health information.

Despite its ability to save the industry as much as $400 billion, healthcare is only beginning to tap into the latent power of data in our increasingly connected world. According to HIMSS Analytics, roughly half of its 2015 Clinical & Business Intelligence Study respondents reported they did not yet have clinical or business intelligence infrastructure in place, surprising given Big Data's promise. The industry's late adopters need to start investing in the information and systems – from analytics and protective measures to secure, reliable networks – that are changing the face of healthcare as we know it if we ever hope to see the real transformation to evidence-based and personalized medicine.

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