Healthcare industry ready for Big Data

Posted by Justin Hesser on November 27, 2013

Healthcare might be primed for a shift.

As we've discussed in this space before, the industry has a uniquely strong need for high quality analytics. Not only is the context difficult — every human body has different needs and weaknesses, the stakes are also high. An incorrect diagnosis from a physician can mean the difference between a patient improving or dying. Custom database software could help in those efforts, by allowing doctors to pool their knowledge together and determine treatment courses, but is currently not widely implemented.

What's the hurdle?

It isn't a lack of available information. Hospitals keep records on every patient, from their age to their gender to any medications they received while in treatment. In fact, on a small scale, it's those exact charts that help guide providers in the best course of action for a particular situation. However, translating this value to a wider scale has so far proven elusive.

Part of the issue is a lack of standardization. All of the valuable data collected is vaulted by closed hospital systems, which makes it difficult to share with any efficacy. With great effort (and often prohibitive cost), retrieval is possible, but the formats and terminologies still tend to be particular to an institution. Getting information into a clinical system is the easy part, but making sure it's possible for it to interface with other systems has, to this point, been largely fruitless.

Slowly but surely, that is changing.

One important update is that certified medical records have to at least provide summary data on patients in XML formats. While this isn't the only change that needs to take place, it at least represents a shift in the mindset that prevents cooperation, and a starting point for sharing data across interfaces. Doctors are coming around to the need for collaboration, which has only intensified in recent years: there are an estimated 14 providers caring for each patient with five or more chronic diseases.

In addition to technological breakthroughs, financial circumstances have and will continue to play a role in the development of big data systems. Insurers are looking to adjust how they determine costs and save money wherever they can, and researchers are interested in developing effective and cheap methods for treating large groups of patients. 

Public perception also appears to be shifting in the direction of big data. Simply put, people want quality healthcare, and an antiquated system with limited communication between interested parties is not going to be as well equipped to provide it. Eric Schadt, director of the Institute of Genomics and Multiscale Biology at Mount Sinai Hospital, predicted such a shift in an interview with USA Today, especially as more providers realize that the option is even available.

"I think in five years' time, we will be talking about advances in several different areas such as cancer that are routinely impacted by big data," said Schadt.

While the custom information-sharing technology needed to truly revolutionize the way we care for patients might not be here yet, the changing landscape suggests that we are headed in the right direction.