Not Modicare, Big Data is what will transform the healthcare sector

By Devanshi Saxena

A trendy topic of discussion has emerged in the technology world: Big Data. The term has become ubiquitous as tech-savvy bloggers and companies are investing in the implementation of Big Data. Innovators have been very optimistic about the revolutionary potential of Big Data in the health-care industry, and certain entrepreneurs have even developed methods through which people can track their biological metrics. Use of artificial intelligence to provide patient-specific treatment may also be possible as Big Data opens up the esoteric avenues in the healthcare sector. This brings us to certain questions regarding the authenticity of the claims whether data can lead to tangible changes in health care.

What is Big Data?

The large volume of data that is analysed for insights into developing strategies in business is big data. This data can be both structured and unstructured and in spite of the volume, it is the manner in which organisations deploy it for strategic uses that matters the most. Since the inception of the digital age, a massive pile of data has been generated by the use of Internet and circulation of digitised information. Health records are a type of big data which are extremely complicated to be easily decoded by the traditional technology methods. However, after the advent of certain innovative big data technologies, the task of consolidating and analysing this data is now more feasible. With the evaluation of this data, certain trends and patterns can be easily discerned which can be utilised in making market predictions. Beginning from spreadsheets and databases, it has been a long way regarding the technology expansion as well as data bombardment. Every digital action leaves a digital footprint, and the machine-generated data meanwhile grows exponentially. The massive collection of data from a wide spectrum of sources that can be employed in different walks of life is ultimately the “Big Data”.

Benefits of Big Data in the healthcare sector

One of the most significant applications of Big Data in healthcare is that it provides the medical professionals with the requisite data to deliver more precise and personalised care. With a more complete, detailed picture of patients and populations, it will be possible to determine how a particular patient will respond to a specific treatment, or even identify patients at risk before a health issue arises. Accurate information yields more granular diagnosis, which provides for more precise treatment and certain companies have started making use of this data to influence health outcomes. With undeterred access to the patient’s healthcare data, it will be possible for medical professionals to understand the initial symptoms of a serious illness and design a treatment procedure following the patient’s medical condition. Most importantly, when these medical records will be compared and analysed as a whole, it will be possible to detect patterns highlighting certain aspects which might be important in the field of medicine and research. Certain laboratories and companies have also started working in the direction of studying genomic and proteomic data for drug development

As per the reports of the HIMSS Journal on Big Data analytics in healthcare: promise and potential, a data processing platform, Hadoop, has contributed significantly to analysing the Big Data in healthcare. Using Hadoop, researchers can now use data sets that were traditionally impossible to handle as computers are better adept at finding correlations in data sets with many variables as compared to humans. The Hadoop data processing and storage platform have opened up entire new research domains for discovery. A team in Colorado is correlating air quality data with asthma admissions. Be it the cure for diseases, avoiding avertable deaths, improving the quality of life or predicting epidemics, it is the data that is examined to draw certain inferences. Owing to the changes in lifestyle and population, Big Data is especially relevant for designing different treatment models to suit the needs of the changing times.

Present use of Big Data technology in the commercial sector

Apple and IBM have collaborated to develop a Watson Health cloud healthcare analytics service through which iPhone and Apple Watch users can share their health-related data. The biometric data from millions of potential users will be then utilised to get an insight into the medical research. Another company, Flatiron Health is also collecting data from the e-health records. These records are then being extensively scrutinised to identify potential interventions and cost-saving opportunities. Electronic health records are often labelled as unorganised and take much time in being sorted; however, their importance lies in providing access to an individual’s medical history for devising accurate, patient-specific treatment. Big Data in context is emerging as the most important data set of the future.

The U.S. government is currently trying to use data collected over decades to address better health issues facing Americans. According to Dr Mona Siddiqui, Chief Data Officer at the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, the federal government wants to collaborate more across government agencies to create better policies for better health that are based in the best data available. But right now, it’s hard to share data across government groups. “There’s a missed opportunity there to understand how are we using our resources and making policy decisions with the right data,” says Siddiqui.

Start-ups using Big Data and the manner in which it is being utilised

  1. Explorys: The company that is a spinoff of the Cleveland Clinic makes extensive use of the Big Data records to develop more personalised means of healthcare. It aims to develop more nuanced tools for medical care that may reduce the overall expenses of clinical care combined with a better perception to handle the patient population. Having developed one of the world’s biggest healthcare databases, more than 100 billion data points on the database can be explored by Explorys. With the help of analytical tools, variations among patients and how treatments influence health outcomes can be readily determined. Based on this data, medical practitioners can devise treatment plans based on the requirements of the patient.
  2. Propeller Health (formerly Asthmapolis): It helps providers identify at-risk asthma patients before the condition worsens. Mobile applications, advanced analytics combined with sensors for asthma inhalers are used to prepare a profile of the patient. The time and date of use of inhaler are recorded by the sensor and the GPS-enabled devices track location data which is then used to prepare a medical record. The Propeller Health app then provides a profile of the patient’s inhaler usage to their doctors which helps them to understand trends and prevent any life-threatening attacks.
  3. NextBio: Their big-data technology uses both public and proprietary molecular and genomic data, as well as clinical information from individual patients which is uploaded by the provider into a HIPAA-compliant secure domain. Utilizing data from the human genome further helps in patient-specific medical decisions.
  4. UPMC’s Analytics Platform: The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) is another organisation utilising genomic data to advance the cause personalised healthcare. A platform for data analysis and storage was created in 2012 by the UPMC. Through this platform, data from more than 200 sources is used to integrate the clinical, financial, administrative and genomic aspects of medicine. With specific research being done in the field of breast cancer, UPMC’s data warehouse has integrated the clinical and genomic information on 140 breast cancer patients.
  5. InterSystems’ HealthShare Active Analytics- It is a 35-year-old software company focusing its accumulated expertise and technology to tackle Big Data applications such as mapping the Milky Way with the European Space Agency. With the systemized assortment of data from the health system databases, HealthShare Active Analytics tool endeavours to seek a favourable population health outcome coupled with reduced medical care costs.

The way ahead

Mingled with the concerns of data privacy, data security and data discrimination, Big Data has emerged as the new revolution in the field of health-care analysis. Besides analysing a vast number of medical records and images for patterns that can help spot disease early, and developing data-driven medicine, data can be further utilised to monitor natural and human-made disasters.

Meanwhile, investors also see the data boom as a chance to maximise solutions through more investment. With Big Data and the personalised medicine, the ‘one-size-fits-all’ model of treatment is eliminated. Most importantly, the ability to manage patient-specific personalised care should also result in lowering of health costs in the near future.