Is the Arrival of “Big Data” a Wave or a Tsunami?

September 9th, 2013
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With nearly the same trepidation often reserved for a major weather disturbance and its aftermath of health issues, hospitals and providers are dealing with the arrival of “big data.” While handling large amounts of information is hardly a new idea, now there are regulatory requirements to meet, and vast volumes of test results, patient records, and other data to harness and transform into actionable information.
The regulations:

Under the Affordable Care Act, Medicare is levying (or soon will levy) penalties on hospitals that don’t reduce 30-day readmissions of myocardial infarction, heart failure or pneumonia patients; don’t use electronic health records to determine outcomes; and don’t reduce hospital-acquired infections. In addition, the Patient-Centered Outcomes Institute will collect data on 12 million patients in a long-term program to match certain treatments with provable improved outcomes. Large quantities of data are becoming available about healthcare systems and institutions, along with requirements for using it. 
How to get ready?

The key to harnessing the potential of this mass of data may lie in its transformation into “information.” My colleague Caroline Popper reflected on her training as a pathologist in this context, as the specialty was making big efforts to ensure that practitioners were not in the business of doing tests, but rather would be generating usable, actionable information to arrive at a diagnosis.
Perhaps, as SAP Big Data General Manager Irfan Khan wrote, we’ve arrived at a time when we can finally produce this actionable information, and make data work for us, for a change: 

  • A great deal of waste exists in healthcare, and mining and assembling models from “big data” might provide some way out of this wasteful spending.
  • At Popper and Company, we have often discussed the use of smartphone and internet technologies to bring health records and personalized health advice directly to consumers; however we recognize that these data need to be “packaged” in actionable ways.
  • Good information can move us away from standardized diagnoses and treatments, avoiding the number of patients for whom “typical” treatments are not effective and facilitating more personal care, sometimes called “precision medicine.”
  • Finally, in sufficient volumes, these data can perhaps identify a richer set of consequences and get us closer to true outcomes, enabling us to “play with a fuller deck” than in the past.

While many physicians bristle at the idea of having a computer guide how they treat patients (and they do have a point particularly early on when data mining and analysis may be less sophisticated), we believe that the thoughtful and judicious use of these data might actually help physicians.  The key element is the transformation of the Big Data tsunami into a normal wave that relentlessly improves healthcare. The integration of a patient’s genomic information, physiological data from his/her smartphone app, laboratory information, history and physical exam can produce a more complete picture. Coupled with predictive analytics, one can imagine the provision of higher quality (better informed) care in a more efficient manner. It is on the transformation of the data deluge that we believe the most effort should be focused.
Our Popper and Company team has a long track record of matching healthcare challenges with the right technological solutions to help promote efficiencies in healthcare. Our diverse perspectives help technology and life sciences clients to identify new ways to address health problems. To learn more, please subscribe to our newsletter, follow us on Twitter, or send me an email.

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About the Author:

My broad career spans across medicine, engineering and business development. At Popper and Company, I develop business strategies and provide guidance to accelerate new product development for medical device companies. Send me an email.