A review of the Big Data boom, and a glimpse into its future in the healthcare industry.

Big data is changing healthcare—and it’s a good thing. Technological innovation is a disruption of the norm. It encourages shakeups of the status quo, forcing established industries to adapt and build and keep up. Healthcare and medical science have always been fields that embrace innovation. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t have targeted cancer drugs or prosthetic limbs that can feel and touch, or implanted devices that notify a physician about changes in pulmonary pressure as they happen. And as big data further infiltrates the industry, we all stand to benefit in major ways.

Data has always been a cornerstone of healthcare. On an individual level, physicians use information about symptoms, reactions, and medical histories to treat their patients. Data is what drives clinical trials and the development of alternative therapies. From the reading on a glucose meter to the analysis of a blood sample, the more data we have the better able we are to treat.

Human beings create an uncanny amount of data everyday. The power to aggregate and analyze this data on a massive scale is rather recent, spurred on by the development of specialists and innovative tools. For industries like healthcare, it opens doors to increased efficiency, lower costs, and a better quality of life for people coping with illness or injury.

The promise of big data

17.8% of the U.S. economy in 2015 was devoted to healthcare, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. That’s $3.2 trillion spent, or $9,990 a person—an increase of 5.8 percent from 2014. The largest percent of this spending went toward hospital care, and increasingly, the use and intensity of provided services. The enactment of the Affordable Care Act had a lot to do with this, but so did the fact that more Americans are struggling with obesity, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses.

There is potential in big data to curb a lot of the issues that have driven up healthcare spending. Aggregated data analysis can help researchers better understand how disease develops and propagates. On a widespread level, it can help physicians better understand a person’s particular risk for an illness, better locate illnesses at early, treatable stages, and better select the therapies that will be most effective on a cellular level.

Think of the fitness tracker. The ability to track and record data like the amount of steps taken per day has enabled physicians to get a greater handling on patients’ activity levels and encouraged individuals to adopt healthier lifestyles.

Wearables have extended beyond pedometers, too. New implantable devices are changing lives for diabetics, constantly reading blood sugar levels and notifying patient, caregiver, and physician of troubling changes in real time. Soon, experts say, the devices will be able to directly dispense insulin as well.

Perhaps the largest promise that data holds is the opportunity to share and learn on a global scale. Consider the field of genomic research. Mapping the entire human genome is an enormous undertaking, and one that holds an unprecedented capacity to solve the puzzles of cancer and other major diseases. One institution might discover the particular mechanism behind a single gene, and another institution the mechanism behind another.

Combining this data is how we eventually complete the entire picture.

Protecting physicians

No matter how brilliant a physician, his or her ultimate course of action usually rests at an intersection of known information and expected outcomes. Put simply, healthcare is often a guessing game. Doctors diagnose and treat based on their personal understandings of a particular patient’s situation and the possible end results that could occur from any selected course of action. This inevitably puts the blame on the physician when something goes wrong.

Costly malpractice suits and defensive medicine are leading causes of wasteful healthcare spending. Relying exclusively on their own clinical judgments has left physicians vulnerable to doing too much or doing too little, both of which have served as the basis for litigation. Big data can change this. By having access to a host of information in addition to their own observations and analyses, physicians can make better informed decisions and mitigate a portion of their own responsibility for outcomes.

Challenges in implementation

The technological disruption has forced organizations to either innovate or fall behind. Healthcare and hospital groups, used to functioning in one way, have had to develop new ways of operating that fit the needs of the changing data landscape. This requires an influx of resources up front that not everyone can take on.

Traditionally, the primary focus of healthcare IT departments has been to maintain day-to-day operations. Big data, however, requires invention and advancement, and that’s not something all IT professionals have the skills or desire to do. Regardless of innovative needs, IT departments still have to do their original jobs—the basic functions of running an organization can’t be neglected.

This has led to a rise in IT consultancies, companies who bring development, analytical, and business skills to industries building more complex data systems. These professionals know how to collect and store data, and they also know the right questions to ask. After all, what is the use of data if it doesn’t lead to action?

Finding (and paying) the right people for the job isn’t the only hard part. Implementing new systems on a large scale often requires a restructuring of current, long-held systems and modes of operation. To procure actionable data, healthcare groups need to be able to efficiently store and locate personal and clinical data, and that can be a tricky business. Electronic data records are surprisingly limited in what information they provide.

Seamless, large-scale data exchanges are the goal, but the process doesn’t happen on its own. As a whole, the healthcare industry has to dedicate itself to building and supporting a big data structure that extends beyond individual hospitals, towns, and countries. If and when they can do this, the possibilities for better healthcare are endless.

Sarah Baker

Brian Russel Davis

Brian is a Full Stack Dev/Engineering professional with nearly 17 years of experience developing web media for global brands, and executing outside of the box thinking.