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The Big Data Horizon: Patients and Doctors Alike Will Benefit

We all know how valuable data is to companies. You hear it over and over again, though: the treasure trove of information that enterprises now have at their fingertips is completely useless unless it is made actionable. With the supercomputer power of cloud platforms and virtual machines (another element of IT’s “third platform”), the data can be converted into insights and innovative strategies to give just about any organization a competitive advantage.

Big data is being discussed ad nausea in board rooms and conferences across the world, throughout all aspects of the tech-savvy marketplace. Healthcare is one area in which broad swaths of data could be extraordinarily meaningful.

Healthcare providers and plans will be diversely impacted by continually sophisticated methods to crunch data in order to deliver better care.

By processing enormous datasets, we will be able to improve therapies and save lives, says Dwayne Spradlin, chief executive of the Health Data Consortium about. Using complex algorithms, we will be able to filter information to determine what patients might be more susceptible to life-limiting illnesses.

Additionally, “[t]he ability to use big data to identify waste in the healthcare system can also lower the cost of healthcare across the board,” explains Natalie Burg of ForbesBrandVoice.

Cost makes healthcare more accessible, but this isn’t just about money. It’s about compassion. It’s about the Hippocratic Oath. One example: Dr. Michael Cunningham of the Seattle Children’s Hospital combined the potential of big data and the cloud to help figure out why childrens’ skulls sometimes fuse prematurely, a condition known as craniosynostosis that can lead to brain damage. By processing a massive amount of information, Cunningham was able to locate cells with certain commonalities, pointing toward the root cause of the malady.

We know that the promise of big data is extraordinary. So what’s the catch?

How interoperability woes plague big data

In order for big data to provide its real value, everyone must work together. We’re talking about interoperability. Data is distributed across numerous healthcare providers, plans, and governmental agencies. Partially because of free market competition and partially because of the authorizations required to comply with the HIPAA privacy and security rules, individual entities and business associates have their own data “siloed” away from all the rest.

“The problem is that this data is everywhere,” comments Spradlin, “but it’s hidden and packed away, and it’s incredibly fragmented.”
Understanding the absolute necessity of safeguarding patient privacy, Spradlin said that the big data movement is by no means an opportunity to transition patient data to the public domain.

Getting everyone to work collaboratively and figuring out what’s necessary to monitor and regulate a sustainably interoperable ecosystem is daunting. However, Spradlin sees big data eventually hurdling these obstacles and moving on to conquer increasingly critical issues.

Get on the bandwagon

Spradlin’s arguments are reasonable, but he actually doesn’t need to be convincing. As focus builds, money talks. Just look at a Rock Health analysis conducted last year: In the first quarter of 2014, well over $600 million of seed money was injected into startups squared on sparking the digital health revolution. Compared to Q1 2013, that represents a CAGR of 87%.

“This is probably the single biggest opportunity for innovators in our lifetime,” Spradlin argues. “It’s one-sixth of the US economy, and it’s ready and willing to change.”

Although every industry tends to like to solve its own conundrums, much of the momentum to push healthcare forward will be built via startups outside the healthcare world.

The Affordable Care Act has also been fundamental in paving the way for big data by incentivizing companies to take three incremental steps toward “meaningful use,” which in turn would facilitate interoperability. Expert testimony in US Congress has drawn further attention to the issue as well. (Unfortunately, though, 55% of the 2000 physicians polled recently by Medical Practice Insider said they would not be participating in the second phase of the HHS’s meaningful-use incentive program.)

What big data looks like now

Although it’s easy to continually point to the future when discussing technology, major big data projects are currently underway. For instance, Wiser Together is using data analytics to interact with patients, hoping to strengthen care and streamline budgets.

We also can’t help but focus on the experience of a single patient. Forgetting the stats and trends, how will big data impact the healthcare experience for each of us? Supercomputers may not have that great of bedside manner, but they could be extraordinarily adept diagnosticians, as indicated by a project involving IBM’s Watson.

Think about a virtual “doctor’s assistant” that is able to run through every possible scenario in an instant. Does that seem improbable? It’s NOT in an era when we all have supercomputer-trumping resources accessible via the cloud.

“What IBM’s Watson has done is really put a persona on this notion that the care experience could be substantially enriched by [big data],” Spradlin said. “It’s incredibly exciting.”

Getting in on the big data movement

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