It’s hard to think of a more worthwhile use for big data than saving lives – and around the world the healthcare industry is finding more ways to do that every day.
From predicting epidemics to curing cancer and making staying in hospital a more pleasant experience, big data is proving invaluable to improving outcomes.
This is very good news indeed – as the cost of caring has skyrocketed in recent years and is expected to continue to do so as the population ages – to the point where we could be headed for serious trouble.
I’ve spoken before about the hospital unit which found it could detect infections in newborns 24 hours before symptoms showed, by monitoring a live stream of heartbeats and breathing patterns.
And I’ve also mentioned Google’s (disputed but interesting) claims that it could detect outbreaks of flu more accurately than standard prediction methods by monitoring search activity.
But these are just the tip of the iceberg in an industry which generates mountains of data across every area of its operations.
In fact last year a survey by IDC Health Insights found that 50% of the hospitals and healthcare insurers put increasing their analytics capabilities as their top priority for investment over the next year.
And the body of medical literature from which further research evolves continues to grow every day – with an estimated one million records per year added to Medline, the online repository of scientific studies related to medicine.
Efficiency is the great driver here – with the cost of healthcare in the US currently standing at around 18% of GDP and forecast to rise, payment models are changing. While traditionally providers have been paid according to number of patients they treat, a move towards payment based on results and quality of treatment is taking place. These more complex metrics require more data and a different analytical skill set, rather than simply counting the number of patients coming through the door.
McKinsey & Company compiled a report for the Center for US Health System Reform which identified four main sources of big data in the healthcare industry.
Activity (claims) and cost data.
These are the basic figures showing the amount of care which has been supplied by providers in the system, and the cost of paying for that care. Analysis of this tells us about the spread of diseases, and the priority that should be given to dealing with specific health threats. The most cost-effective treatments for specific ailments can be identified and the number of duplicate or unnecessary treatments can be significantly reduced. In the United States, Methodist Health System has used a tool which analyses Medicare claims data to highlight groups and individuals who may need expensive care in the future, allowing for less costly preventative action at an early stage.
These include patient medical records and images gathered during examinations or procedures, as well as doctors’ notes. For example, the Carilion Clinic, in Virginia, says it used natural language processing algorithms to analyse 350,000 patient records, identifying 8,500 people at risk of heart problems. Similarly, the American Medical Association reported that analysis of patient records found only 26% of children who had recorded three high blood pressure readings at separate visits to their doctors had been diagnosed as suffering hypertension – highlighting a significant number of failures to spot the condition.
Pharmaceutical R&D data
Over the last few years a large number of partnerships have sprung up between pharmaceutical companies – as if they have suddenly become aware of the huge benefits of pooling their knowledge. In the US major firms such as Pfizer and Novartis pool their data from trials into the clinicaltrials.gov website. And in the UK GlaxoSmithKline recently unveiled its partnership with the SAS Institute which aims to increase collaboration based on data from clinical trials. Suitable candidates can be found for trials more effectively by looking into lifestyle information. And comparison of data from multiple trials can throw up surprising results which can lead to new breakthroughs. For example the antidepressant desipramine is being trialled for its potential to destroy cancer cells in patients with small cell lung cancer.
Patient behaviour and sentiment data
This is data from over-the-counter drug sales combined with the latest “wearables” which monitor your activity and heart rates, patient experience and customer satisfaction surveys as well as the vast amount of unstructured information about our lifestyles broadcast every day over social media. At the moment wearable devices are mainly used for personal fitness, but this is set to change – spending on bringing this information from smart watches, wrist bands, running shoes and other wearables is expected to reach $52 million by 2019, according to a study by ABI Research. Services such as ginger.io already allow care providers to monitor their patients through sensor-based applications on their smartphones. And Proteus manufacture an “ingestible” scanner the size of a grain of sand, which can be used to track when and how patients are taking their medication. This gives providers information about “compliance rates” – how often patients follow their doctor’s orders – and can even alert a family member to remind them.
Of course with medical matters patient privacy is always high priority, and big data brings big challenges in this respect. How insurance companies will act on the vast increase in information about our lives that they are able to glean is a concern – will we see individuals turned down for cover because their running shoes have snitched that they are lazy?
It is plain to see that there are huge benefits to be had from analyzing the data about our health that is out there. The mantra of “prevention is better than cure” has led to a focus on predicting problems in the early stages when they are easier to treat, and outbreaks can be more easily contained.
For example, Global Viral monitors data sources including a network of “listening posts” across Africa and Asia, as well as social media chatter, to detect the spread of disease from wildlife to humans – considered to be the source of 75% of diseases which are harmful to human health.
In the future we are likely to recover more quickly from illness and injury, and we will live longer. New drugs will come into existence and our hospitals and surgeries will operate more efficiently – all thanks to big data.
I hope you found this post useful. I am always keen to hear your views on the topic and invite you to comment with any thoughts you might have.
About : Bernard Marr is a globally recognized expert in strategic metrics and data. He helps companies and executive teams manage, measure, analyze and improve performance.