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Is Big Data Good for Our Health? You Bet. Here’s Why.

Merav Yuravlivker

Merav Yuravlivker

Cameron Warren

Cameron Warren

The term “Big Data” is increasingly used in our everyday lives.  But each mention of it means something different, unique to what we use it for and how we interact with it. Big Data is not information.  It’s the raw resource that people can use to discover new insights. Just as raw crude needs to be refined to run a car, Big Data needs to be refined to provide useful insights. In 2001, Doug Laney, who currently works for the analyst firm Gartner, defined this raw resource in terms of its three ubiquitous attributes, “the 3 V’s” – Volume, Velocity, and Variety.

VolumeImageAccording to Eric Schmidt, the Chairman of Google, today we generate as much data in less than two years than we did from the dawn of civilization up to 2003. That’s volume. In 1 minute there are 2.4 million Google queries, 547,200 tweets, 204 million e-mails sent, and that’s just 3 categories out of the thousands of ways data is continuously generated. This is velocity and variety.

Making healthcare healthier.

According to the consultancy McKinsey & Co., healthcare represents more than 17% of U.S. GDP, almost $600 billion more than expected for a nation as big and as wealthy as the U.S. There is a lot of waste in the almost $3 trillion dollar U.S. healthcare industry and, for the first time, the new prevalence in well-integrated electronic healthcare records (EHRs) is allowing health insurers and government services such as Medicare and Medicaid to identify fraudulent practices automatically. EHRs have become the norm thanks in part to President George Bush’s plan in 2005 to computerize American’s healthcare information and President Obama’s Affordable Care Act in 2009 to incorporate incentives to share healthcare information through health information exchanges. As of 2014, these initiatives have given 76% of hospitals the ability to record and access patient data electronically, which has created a digital health map for millions of people.[1]

EHRimageElectronic Health Record Adoption 2008 – 2014

Click here for an interactive version

(*note: Clinician notes denote facilities with EHR systems capable of capturing patient-physician interaction via free-form text)

A recently released free mobile phone application by MicroStrategy allows anyone to look at Medicare billings by any physician in the U.S. Information is available based on the number of procedures performed and number of patients treated. Anyone with the technical expertise can analyze this data for patterns and anomalies and identify dubious practices. This is exactly how Medicare found physicians who were inappropriately prescribing well-reimbursed procedures including an ophthalmologist in Florida who billed Medicare more than $21 million in 2012 alone.

Healthcare providers are also generating substantial savings due to the increased quality of the data available. Kaiser Permanente created a new platform to ensure data is shared between all medical facilities. The integrated system has helped the company save over $1 billion from fewer required office visits and tests.

In his book, Predictive Analytics, Eric Siegel describes the breadth of uses of Big Data and predictive analysis in the healthcare industry today.

  1. Google Flu has shown to forecast an increase in influenza cases at hospitals 7 to 10 days earlier than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by analyzing online search trends.
  2. Stanford University has built a predictive model that diagnoses breast cancer better than human doctors by considering a greater number of risk factors.
  3. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center predicts a patient’s risk of readmission within 30 days in order to assist with the decision of release.

McKinsey & Co. estimates that increased integration and sharing of data sources will reduce healthcare costs in the U.S. by $300 billion to $450 billion, and that’s not counting the impact of yet undeveloped radical innovations and use cases.

At the individual level, devices are taking patient monitoring to new heights. A new mobile application, Ginger.io, allows physicians to track consenting patients and help them with behavioral-health therapies. Ginger.io collects data about phone calls, texts, location and even motion. Patients also have the ability to complete surveys to better contextualize the data collected about them. The application then combines patient data with research on behavioral health from the NIH to reveal new insights.

Caution: pitfalls ahead

Although Big Data and data science can help the world become a healthier place, the new opportunities are not risk-free. We need to heed the caution signs along the way.

  1. Privacy: data privacy continues to be a problem in healthcare. Medical data can be sent around to third parties as part of administrative processes or prescriptions. In one case, a mother and daughter’s medications were mixed up, which led to an unintentional disclosure of a medical condition.
  2. Data integrity: the accuracy of collected data is also a problem. Many patient histories can be subjective and a lot of information concerning prescriptions and patient visits are still entered manually which can be prone to errors. While data can give us many answers, we must also question the source to ensure reliable results.
  3. Education: data analytics are most effective when an industry expert understands the methods and applications of the data. In order for analytics to reach its full potential, healthcare professionals need to be trained to understand the implications behind data analysis.
  4. Ethics: data ethics is still a nebulous area in the data realm. Because much of the data available has come into existence recently, there aren’t many standards in place. Even though health insurers cannot use preexisting conditions to reject applicants, they still use prescription data to identify high-risk patients and set rates. Is this ethical behavior? Maybe not, but there are currently no policies in place to prevent this from happening.

PossibilitiesSo what does the future hold? Perhaps there will be a time where your social media posts about being sad will automatically trigger a notification to your doctor. Or perhaps your Fitbit data will be used to set insurance premiums. Even your diet and medicine could one day be custom tailored to your genetic makeup at the price of a generic drug today. We’ve already seen the positive impacts that Big Data analytics have had across the healthcare field and, as long as we continue to proceed with caution and foresight, the possibilities are endless for creating a healthier and happier world.

Merav Yuravlivker is co-founder of Data Society, a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to democratizing data literacy by teaching everyone how to turn Big Data into Big Insights.  Cameron Warren is a Data Scientist and contributor to Data Society’s educational curriculum. Data Society is proud to partner with RealWorldHealthCare.org on its Big Data in Healthcare series.

[1] Imler, Dr. Timothy. “Getting Down and Dirty With Big Healthcare Data.” The Huffington Post. November 28, 2015

Four benefits of electronic health records

Leaders from industry, academia, and health care discuss the rollout of this technology at The Atlantic’s sixth annual Health Care Forum

Today The Atlantic Health Care Forum brought together leading policymakers and industry experts in medicine, public health, and nutrition to have conversations about the state of the nation’s health care system. The event was sponsored by Siemens, Surescripts, WellPoint, GSK and PhRMA. Real World Health Care attended to share insights from the panel “Health Care Tomorrow: Examining the Tools and Technologies that Will Revolutionize the Future Health Care System.”

Jamie Elizabeth Rosen

Jamie Elizabeth Rosen

Much of the discussion centered around electronic health records, which are increasingly being rolled out in huge hospital systems after the federal government incentivized their adoption to the tune of billions of dollars five years ago. Four themes emerged from the panel, which included top executives from Johns Hopkins Medicine, athenahealth, PhRMA, and Carolinas HealthCare System.

 

1. Enhancing collaboration.

Electronic health records facilitate a team-based approach to hospital care, as well as allowing for better coordination between hospital systems. “What we’re going to see is it’s going to drive team-based clinical care because everyone in the system will have access to the same medical records,” said Dr. Paul Rothman, Dean of the Medical Faculty and Vice President for Medicine at The Johns Hopkins University and Chief Executive Officer at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “You’re going to see an [increased] level of collaboration not only between delivery systems, but also between the patient and the health care provider.”

However, Ed Park, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, athenahealth, warned that the decades-old technologies that many hospital systems are using are limited in their capabilities. “The current crop of [electronic health records] are documentation tools instead of care management tools,” he said, adding that they are primarily for use by insurers and lawyers. “What I fear is health systems beginning to buy their way into their own prisons that are built of their own IT…as opposed to dealing in an open environment,” he said.

 

2. Enabling patient-centered care.

Electronic health records enable patients to reap greater benefits from telehealth. “Having your information on your iPhone: that’s not far away,” Dr. Rothman said. “[Patients are] going to do EKG’s at home. They’re going to be measuring their blood sugar at home. The patient will have control of the data.”

Electronic records also hold the promise of helping to solve age-old problems in the U.S. health care system, including keeping contact with patients to encourage them to take prescribed treatment regimens. “There is almost $350 billion a year in inefficiency because of lack of compliance and adherence with medications,” said John Castellani, President and Chief Executive Officer, PhRMA. “If you could just get an improvement in whether patients take the medicines that are prescribed, you could capture this great savings.”

“You have kids who have kidney transplants, and you can give them reminders on Facebook that they have to take their medications,” Dr. Rothman added.

 

3. Targeting therapies for increased success.

Electronic medical records can help health care providers ensure that they prescribe the treatments most likely to work for their patients.

“What I think is the promise of electronic medical records is our ability to find subsets of diseases through the broad diseases we treat,” Dr. Rothman said. “Asthma isn’t one disease. Obesity isn’t one disease. Diabetes isn’t one disease. We are going to be able to find subsets of diseases and target therapies [that work]. That’s when you’re going to see efficiency and return on investment.”

 

4. Harnessing the power of big data.

Our health care system has already begun to see the benefits of ‘big data’ with examples such as the discovery of drug side effects and interactions through mining consumer web search data. “We have to use the technologies to bring down the cost of the drug discovery process,” Castellani said.

“Just taking care of the patient, we capture data,” said Dr. Roger Ray, Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Officer, Carolinas HealthCare System. “That allows us to know when a patient…may be at risk for hospital readmission. Having the ability to mine [data]…makes a difference for patients.

“We all, each of us, remember with longing a simpler time when we could scribble and walk off and our job was done,” he added. “What we know now is that’s not very good for the patient. We had no standardization allowing us to help patients avoid lots of different bad outcomes they could have.”

 

Have electronic medical records impacted your health or that of your patients? Share your thoughts in the comments section.