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Readers Write: Big Data: Enabling the Future of Healthcare

November 6, 2013 Readers Write No Comments

Big Data: Enabling the Future of Healthcare
By Anthony Jones, MD

11-6-2013 12-38-27 PM

Everyone’s talking about the importance of big data in healthcare. Yet as the data piles up – most of it still in different silos – health systems are struggling to turn big data from just a concept into a reality. Here’s how I see big data having the biggest impact on the health of populations, both today and tomorrow.

Most healthcare organizations today are using two sets of data: retrospective (basic event-based information collected from medical records or insurance claims) and real-time clinical (the information captured and presented at the point of care  — imaging, blood pressure, oxygen saturation , heart rate, etc.). For example, if a diabetic patient enters the hospital complaining about numbness in their toes, instead of immediately assuming the cause is their diabetes, the clinician could monitor their blood flow and oxygen saturation and potentially determine if there’s something more threatening — like an aneurism or stroke — around the corner.

Where real pioneering technologies have succeeded is putting these two data pieces together in a way that clinicians can grasp the relevant information and use it to identify trends that will impact the future of healthcare – predictive analytics. So for example, if more diabetic patients start to present a similar trend of numbness in their toes, the coupling of real-time and retrospective data can potentially help doctors analyze how treatments will work on a particular population. This gives hospitals a much stronger ability to develop preventative and longer-term services customized for their patients.

Now what if we take data a step further and introduce gene sequencing into the picture? Today, gene sequencing is used primarily to determine the course of treatment for cancer patients. As we reach an inflection point in the cost of gene sequencing, this data will be routinely added to a patient’s health record. Imagine the kind of impact this data will have on treating infectious diseases, where hours and even minutes matter. The next time there’s a disease outbreak, we could potentially know the genome of the infectious organism, the susceptibility of the organism to various antibiotic therapies, and determine the correct course of action without wasting precious resources in trial and error.

Undoubtedly, we have yet to determine the most practical, cost effective way to manage this kind of data. To put it into perspective, the human body contains nearly 150 trillion gigabytes of information. Imagine collecting that kind of data for an entire population.

There’s no doubt this is a mammoth task, and while we might not be there yet, we are certainly getting closer. There are still challenges ahead: organizations are learning lessons from the early adopters and trying to determine the best ways to cooperate and share data. Undoubtedly the amount of investment required to make big data technologies work is more than what a single segment of the market can afford. That means all stakeholders, including pharma, will have to work toward a common vision. But with Accountable Care Organizations paving the path for payers and providers to work more closely together, we are heading toward success, and more importantly, better patient care.

Anthony Jones, MD is chief marketing officer, patient care and clinical informatics, for Philips Healthcare.

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