If you want to find out how Big Data is helping to make the world a better place, there’s no better example than the uses being found for it in healthcare.
The last decade has seen huge advances in the amount of data we routinely generate and collect in pretty much everything we do, as well as our ability to use technology to analyze and understand it. The intersection of these trends is what we call “Big Data” and it is helping businesses in every industry to become more efficient and productive.
Healthcare is no different. Beyond improving profits and cutting down on wasted overhead, Big Data in healthcare is being used to predict epidemics, cure disease, improve quality of life and avoid preventable deaths. With the world’s population increasing and everyone living longer, models of treatment delivery are rapidly changing, and many of the decisions behind those changes are being driven by data. The drive now is to understand as much about a patient as possible, as early in their life as possible – hopefully picking up warning signs of serious illness at an early enough stage that treatment is far more simple (and less expensive) than if it had not been spotted until later.
So to take a journey through Big Data in healthcare, let’s start at the beginning – before we even get ill.
Prevention is better than cure
Smart phones were just the start. With apps enabling them to be used as everything from pedometers to measure how far you walk in a day, to calorie counters to help you plan your diet, millions of us are now using mobile technology to help us try and live healthier lifestyles. More recently, a steady stream of dedicated wearable devices have emerged such as Fitbit, Jawbone and Samsung Gear Fit that allow you to track your progress and upload your data to be compiled alongside everyone else’s.
In the very near future, you could also be sharing this data with your doctor who will use it as part of his or her diagnostic toolbox when you visit them with an ailment. Even if there’s nothing wrong with you, access to huge, ever growing databases of information about the state of the health of the general public will allow problems to be spotted before they occur, and remedies – either medicinal or educational – to be prepared in advance
This is leading to ground breaking work, often by partnerships between medical and data professionals, with the potential to peer into the future and identify problems before they happen. One recently formed example of such a partnership is the Pittsburgh Health Data Alliance – which aims to take data from various sources (such as medical and insurance records, wearable sensors, genetic data and even social media use) to draw a comprehensive picture of the patient as an individual, in order to offer a tailored healthcare package.
That person’s data won’t be treated in isolation. It will be compared and analyzed alongside thousands of others, highlighting specific threats and issues through patterns that emerge during the comparison. This enables sophisticated predictive modelling to take place – a doctor will be able to assess the likely result of whichever treatment he or she is considering prescribing, backed up by the data from other patients with the same condition, genetic factors and lifestyle.
Programs such as this are the industry’s attempt to tackle one of the biggest hurdles in the quest for data-driven healthcare: The medical industry collects a huge amount of data but often it is siloed in archives controlled by different doctors’ surgeries, hospitals, clinics and administrative departments.
Another partnership that has just been announced is between Apple and IBM. The two companies are collaborating on a big data health platform that will allow iPhone and Apple Watch users to share data to IBM’s Watson Health cloud healthcare analytics service. The aim is to discover new medical insights from crunching real-time activity and biometric data from millions of potential users.
The way we visit and interact with doctors is likely to change in the near future, too. Telemedicine is a buzzwords at the moment, and refers to receiving medical treatment remotely, usually in your own home with the aid of a computer and internet connection. Strictly speaking this can refer to anything as simple as visiting webmd.com and self-diagnosing, but increasingly this will take place as a one-on-one service with a qualified professional. This type of service is offered by Healthtap.
All these interactions will of course leave a data trail, which can be analyzed to provide valuable information into general trends in public health and the way we access healthcare.
Big Data in clinical trials
Once your doctor decides that whatever you are complaining about is best treated by medicine, it is likely that the pills and potions he or she offers you have been designed with the help of Big Data, too. Huge amounts of data on applicants will allow researchers to pick the best subjects. And recently, data-sharing arrangements between the pharmaceutical giants has led to breakthroughs such as the discovery that desipramine, commonly used as an anti-depressant, has potential uses in curing types of lung cancer.
Personalized medicine is another hot topic in the healthcare field. It involves tailoring medicines to a person’s unique genetic makeup – and is developed by integrating a person’s genetic blueprint and data on their lifestyle and environment, then comparing it alongside thousands of others to predict illness and determine the best treatment.
Big Data is also helping in the fight against the spread of epidemics. In Africa, mobile phone location data is proving highly valuable in efforts to track population movements, which helps to predict the spread of the Ebola virus. This gives insight into the best areas to provide treatment centres and allows movement restrictions to be put in place when necessary. These strategies were pioneered in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake where they were used to help plan disaster relief.
And of course, a Big Data solution has even been proposed for the search for the Holy Grail of medicine – a cure for cancer. Flatiron Health has developed a service called the OncologyCloud, based on the idea that 96% of potentially available data on patients with cancer is not yet analyzed. It aims to take this data gathered during diagnosis and treatment, and make it available to clinicians to further their study.
Privacy and security
Of course, no data is more personal than our medical data, so extremely secure safeguards have to be put in place to make sure the information only gets to those who we meant to see it. Despite that, cyber thieves routinely target medical records, and reportedly earn more money from stolen health data than by pilfering credit card details. In February, the largest ever healthcare-related data theft took place, when hackers stole records relating to 80 million patients from Anthem, the second largest US health insurer. Fortunately they only took identity information such as names and addresses, and details on illnesses and treatments were not exposed. However, there is a fear that it is only a matter of time until a security breach on that scale takes place in which patient records are lost. Some experts, such as Dr Leslie Saxon of the University of Southern Carolina Center for Body Computing, have called for the establishment of an international organization in the style of the UN, to regulate privacy and security issues relating to health data.
Despite that, the potential for good that Big Data can bring far outweighs the potential for bad. The growing trend towards centralization of medical data will cause concern, but as long as privacy and security can be maintained, it is certain to play a big part in the development of new treatments and add to our growing understanding of how our bodies work, and how we can make sure they carry on working as long as possible.