In almost every commercial industry in the world, servers full of user data is being aggregated to provide key insights into how to help consumers and propel businesses: loyalty programs, surveys, online cookies and web requests made on search engines help corporations find out exactly who their customers are and what they want.
It was only a matter of time before the use of big data was applied to an industry like healthcare. The benefits of this technology far outweigh the costs, but come with potential drawbacks.
Every day, we’re learning more and more about how the health industry is using shared medical records and real-time data of everyday patients, and we are realizing how necessary and life-saving this shift is.
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Electronic Records & Everything Else
Ten years ago, only about 30 percent of physicians and hospitals were using electronic medical records. In 2011, that figure rose to 50 percent for physicians and over 75 percent for hospitals. More recently, around 45 percent of hospitals have been participating in Health Information Exchanges, allowing research facilities, hospital stakeholders and EMR-developing companies to certain authorized medical records.
With the development of health trackers and wearables, like the FitBit or Apple Watch, user and patient activity is being tracked in real-time: sleep, motion, heart rate, blood type and more. Of course, now that all this data is in the cloud, one serious concern is hard to ignore: this information can be hacked.
Our notion of what privacy means has shifted without our forthright consent. In the completely wrong hands, our society could see DNA hackers who can engineer lethal viruses and fake vaccines. But more likely, we might just have a problem with discriminatory practices among insurance companies.
Data Collection & Predictive Analytics
It’s important to note that electronic health records are only collecting 100 megabytes of data per patient per year.
Image via Business Insider
However, the future is visible on the horizon. Medical professionals and tech experts predict that soon, the technology around us will be able to monitor symptoms with real-time ease and cross-examine findings with that of a wider sample group, including people in our communities or share genetic similarities.
This data will be shared more widely among physicians and researchers, so doctors can have access to the most updated information to be able to help their patients. This data also helps to find cures for common diseases, using gene therapy to find solutions for diabetes, tissue and blood cancers, Alzheimer's along with other diseases.
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Saving Lives & Cutting Costs
Another major incentive that helps drive the healthcare industry towards big data is the economic impact of this technology. In 2009, healthcare expenses represented $17.6 of the national GDP and the current expenditures are approaching $3 trillion annually.
A study by the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that applying Big Data to the industry could generate up to $100 billion in value annually across the US, simply by expediting innovation, improving research and clinical trials and creating a more personalized flow between physicians and patients.
Preventative Care Lengthens Lives
New technologies are also enabling faster and more accurate diagnoses, which has not only reduced the trips to the doctor for various tests, saving time and money, but it has also enabled patients to potentially enjoy longer lives.
Image via POC Medical Systems
For example, Point-of-Care (POC) Medical testing is helping significantly more people to get tested for breast cancer and other forms of cancer who might have otherwise not been able to access such preventative care. They are impacting milliions of lives. Catching any signs of cancer early on often means that treatments can start earlier and cancer can be defeated.
The Future is Personalized
As conditions for aggregating big data improves, the technology will improve around us. More diseases will be diagnosed with a simple mobile photo, visits to the doctor could be moved to online forums and video conferences, and the tools to monitor our activity and personal health metrics will be integrated into our personal effects (cell phones, room sensors and more).
Major tech corporations such as Apple and Google have already developed their own health-tracking products, and in 2013, investors put in almost $200 million into analytics and big-data startups. As technology progresses, it is changing the way we approach healthcare—and the results could be life-changing for many people.