This Is What Happens When Healthcare Embraces Big Data

Tim Cannon

Welcome to the world of Big Data, where nearly everything we do – from Internet searching, online shopping, and booking travel arrangements to logging our food and fitness – creates a digital footprint that can be tracked, stored, and analyzed to reveal patterns and trends.

This information is coming rapidly from a multitude of sources, and organizations are scrambling to identify the best ways to sort, store, analyze, and convert the data into knowledge that can be leveraged for everything from increasing a company’s bottom line to predicting outbreaks of illness.

Healthcare is trying to catch up with other industries and utilize Big Data in meaningful ways. One such example of how the industry is making the most out of Big Data is the increased demand for healthcare analytics.

Healthcare analytics uses data and analysis for predictive modeling that results in effective healthcare solutions. For example, information gathered from sources like electronic health records (EHRs) can predict who is more at risk for specific illnesses and conditions, which informs the clinical side on how to help the patient make lifestyle adjustments and improve one’s health to prevent or minimize symptoms.

Healthcare analytics is rapidly rising in value. A July 2015 study by Markets and Markets found that the estimated value of health analytics will reach $18.7 billion by 2020, as compared to the $5.8 billion in 2015.

The rise in analytics and Big Data reflects the ongoing interest in improving the healthcare industry. A summer 2016 report from CDW found that 84% of healthcare executives say providers who adopt an analytics strategy in the next three years will outpace their peer institutions.

However, the introduction of Big Data into the industry was slow moving at first, and it continues to pose concerns about security and other obstacles.

Let’s see how Big Data is affecting the healthcare industry – from its introduction to today, and how the industry must adapt and evolve with these emerging trends.

The beginning

In 2001, Doug Laney simplified Big Data into “the 3 V’s” – volume, velocity, and variety. The volume is defined by the increasing amounts of sources that produce data; the velocity relates to how organizations are scrambling to deal with fast data streams in near-real time; and the variety describes the various types and formats of data, like structured numerics, audio, video, and unstructured text.

The amount of data being captured and processed is immense, and the future promises more growth. In healthcare, the growing usage of electronic health records (EHRs), as mandated by the Affordable Care Act, is working to reduce paperwork and administrative burdens, cut costs, reduce medical errors and, most importantly, improve the quality of care.

Through EHRs alone, healthcare as an industry is now collecting massive amounts of data, and the potential to use this data for good has never been greater. The shift to EHRs has already changed the way the industry manages information and communicates – numbers and metrics are gathered, analyzed, converted into information, and then applied to actionable solutions.

Integrating real-time analytics with current scientific knowledge and clinical expertise is changing standard medical practice, which is now adopting evidence-based healthcare.

What today looks like

Meaningful use incentives have driven hospitals and healthcare professionals to adopt the use of EHR technology. New developments in technology such as mobile applications, capturing devices like smartwatches and fitness trackers, and sensors are contributing to the growing abundance and complexity of Big Data in healthcare.

In fact, the CDW report found that healthcare data is growing by 48% each year, creating a demand for improved analytics capabilities to create actionable insights.

Technology is being used to improve communications through cloud-based videoconferencing and other convenient methods of connecting people quickly. Additionally, there are more affordable ways to collect and capture massive amounts of data due to the prevalence and advanced functionality of many computing systems, which results in more knowledge.

These advancements in intelligence will improve patient care and result in more data integration in everyday life, which simultaneously creates exciting solutions to better health and opens doors to several concerns and problems for the future of healthcare.

Challenges ahead

Healthcare is lagging behind other industries, like retail and finance, in integrating Big Data into their systems because of various obstacles in the sector.

For one, security is a major concern. A study published by the Ponemon Institute in May found that 89% of leaders surveyed said their healthcare organizations had experienced a data breach in the prior two years, and 45% had seen more than five breaches.

Compliance is a must. Big Data still lacks an integrated security solution, so keeping patient data secure and maintaining HIPAA compliance is a challenge without an easy solution.

And it’s not just security – privacy is another major concern. In 2015, more than 200 telemedicine laws were introduced in 42 states, the CDW report found. The law is scrambling to keep up with technology, and providers are left to keep track of changing laws and regulations.

A lack of expertise slows down this integration. Big Data requires highly specialized knowledge that takes a lot of time to learn. IT experts familiar with SQL programming languages and traditional relational databases aren’t prepared for the steep learning curve and other complexities surrounding Big Data. Big Data experts are hard to come by and expensive, and only research institutions usually have access to them.

Future of healthcare

The impact Big Data could have on healthcare improvements is undeniably exciting. Advanced technology paves the road for revolutionary solutions like telemedicine to simplify how healthcare professionals can gather and share information and data.

For example, telemedicine is already being developed to provide virtual visits and remote assessments, which will make quality care more accessible and more efficient. A physician will be able to assess stroke victims via video calling while the patient is in transit to the hospital, potentially saving brain function and preventing permanent damage or death.

Big Data indexing techniques will maximize the benefits of healthcare analytics by using data from clinical notes to inform effective solutions. Unfortunately, poor communication can result in major, even fatal, health issues.

Jennifer Holmes, president and CEO at Central Logic, lost her father after his oncologist missed a critical piece of information before administering a drug cocktail, which was prescribed to treat his cancer, that ultimately resulted in heart failure. This lack of care coordination is avoidable, and it inspired Holmes to find ways to share and connect data so others could avoid the pain her family experienced.

Predictive analytics will help with preventative measures. For example, if a group of individuals suffers from similar conditions, their data will inform healthcare providers about recurring and emerging issues, which can be transformed into predictive algorithms to anticipate how other patients will react and experience symptoms over time. This provides an opportunity for developing preventative actions to improve quality of life for many.

The future is now

More than 165,000 health apps are on the market today, and 15,000 of them are targeted for specific conditions, CDW found. And all these apps are helping providers and patients better track and manage diseases and ailments. Among patients surveyed for the CDW report, 57% said they are more engaged with their healthcare than they were two years ago, and 59% said they access their healthcare information more frequently.

Wearables will continue to collect patient data, which will eventually allow healthcare providers to monitor patients in their homes and lead to more personalized care. Eventually, this data can trigger notifications and alerts when changes in vital signs like blood pressure may indicate an emergency. Remote monitoring will mean fewer readmissions, quicker responses in emergencies, and more immediate care to prevent conditions from spiraling out of control.

This rapid influx of sensor data means IT experts are preparing methods of managing and storing this data securely.

Indeed, integrating Big Data into healthcare is a major ongoing task that requires a lot of knowledge and expertise. The transition is underway and promises a bright future for patients and healthcare professionals alike.

For more details on how technology is changing the future of healthcare, download the SAP eBook Connected Care: The Digital Pulse of Global Healthcare.