How is “Big Data” going to change healthcare?

I’m sure you’ve all heard the term. Whether it’s being used with technology, finance, marketing, healthcare, and even with gaming. But what is it exactly? You’ll find many different interpretations and definitions, but the one that most resonates with me, and what I believe the actual definition is is this:

Big Data is the collection and availability of multiple forms of data from multiple sources.

So what does that mean specifically to you or me? Well, we are at the cusp of transitioning into a brand new age. Up until now we’ve still been living in the Industrial Age. Business has been focused on creating products and centered on industry. The future is changing however, and up ahead is the Information Age. This new age is seeing integration of technology and data into all facets of business. From healthcare to video games, it’s revolutionizing how we look at our products and services and how we can better market and improve them.

Let’s start with the potential benefits that big data can bring. Multi-dimensional data can be used to collect data from patients to help with everything from clinical trials down to medication adherence. Big Pharma can use these tools to filter out potential “guinea piggers” from trials to help ensure higher quality data. They can also use that information to create more effective marketing platforms for their drugs by improving user interaction and engagement with the company and its products.

Hospitals and doctors can use big data to improve and streamline diagnostics. Social media data can be useful to tell where a patient has recently been or what they ate to aid in diagnosing any potential infections from food or outbreaks of a specific contagion. We may even be able to use this data to minimize the outbreak of a potential new contagion such as the Ebola outbreak into the western world in late 2014 into early 2015. Medicine is entirely based on data. From evidence based medicine to outcomes based medicine, it’s all about the data. So having more data may potentially make medicine both more efficient and more accurate. Think of how much faster we can catch an outbreak of E. Coli or Salmonella when we can see that the first two patients to have contracted the pathogen both posted on Instagram or Facebook about going to the same restaurant earlier in the week, or we see that two patients checking in to two hospitals around the US having both contracted the avian flu were both on the same flight coming out of the same country? While that data may likely raise more questions than answers, it may very well point us in the right direction and help us find the answer faster. It may very well be the next big breakthrough in medicine.

Hospitals and industries are not the only ones to benefit. Pharmacies will also be able to use that data to enhance services. Data from avenues such as social media and wearable tech may help the chains better patient behaviors and narrow down barriers to issues such as medication adherence. There is also the potential to integrate with existing technology to improve patient medication adherence by creating apps that can generate alarms to remind patients when to take certain medications they’ve been prescribed, or how best they can modify their diets or physical activity with reminders or built in phone or web apps that offer coaching or guidance.

On the flip-side of the coin, we have those that would use that data for purposes other than improving healthcare. That purpose would be to build business. Companies such as pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) such as Express Scripts, Medco, and third party payers, such as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). These are in essence insurance companies. Let’s face it, they are a business, and as a business, their model works very well. They may be a proponent for using big data to improve healthcare, but the way in which they will use it is different. They will seek to use big data to enhance data or currently available generics, and drugs that are cheaper for them for buy and reimburse. Their entire logic structure is based on the following:

Why pay much more for a newer drug when the old one works well enough already? 

From a business standpoint, it does make sense. If we already know that the medicine that has been around for decades is already good enough, why should we pay for something that might work better, but is a lot more expensive? And that’s where we have the issue. Insurance companies are the middle of the road people. To them, “good enough” is all they need and want. As the British call it, “cheap and cheerful.” But let’s analyze that term. Cheap AND cheerful? Isn’t that an oxymoron? How can someone be cheerful about getting something cheap? The insurances can, but they’re a giant corporation, not the individual being treated. That, is exactly the problem, they are not thinking of the individuals. To the insurance companies, you are not a person, you are a claim number. Their entire purpose is to take your money, and try to minimize what they pay out. And while I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, because that IS how the business model operates, that needs changing. However, insurance companies using your data against you isn’t the biggest problem, the data itself is.

Not sure what I mean? Well, what is and has always been the biggest problem with technology, and everything that “smart” technology has brought? Not sure? The answer is security, as in privacy. In healthcare, we are talking about patient privacy, YOUR privacy. Whether it’s you have chronic headaches, or you have a debilitating disease, that knowledge is and should be only known to your healthcare providers, and yourself. The problem with using big data, is since nobody really knows how to use it yet, there are ways to get all sorts of information. The risk with that is you may see people or companies use it for more nefarious reasons. Imagine being blackmailed by someone to pay a ransom just for them not to tell your private patient information to your family members, or even worse, put it up on the internet. What would that privacy be worth to you? Would you pay? Worst off, what if your employer could use it to actually monitor your sick leaves or medical leaves? Not a big deal you might think, “because I only take sick days when I’m actually sick.” Well now what if they start polling that data and say that an average person with the flu is only out for 4 days, and if you take more than those allotted 4 days, it is no longer classified as sick? Changes things around does it not? The point, is that when they start using big data against you, there is no end to the limitations that can be imposed upon you.

There are THREE sides to every coin.

Now before you start writing on posters and printing up pickets, remember this, there are three sides to every coin. Don’t think so? Then let’s review. You have heads, tails, and the edge or rim of the coin. Yes, technically that counts as a side because a coin is a 3-dimensional object right? Right. Why did I bring that up randomly? Well, the sides of a coin present a great metaphor what approach you should use to view something. You have the good, the bad, and the line in between. Real life is often never as simple as a yes or no, a true or false. There are usually multiple approaches to the same situation.

Big Data is inescapable. It will change everything. What we need to do though, is try to sift through all the possibilities of big data, and try to separate out what’s useful, from what is not. We also need to take a closer look at what is beneficial, and what steps we can take to prevent data from being used against us. These are all issues we must deal with in the coming years. The first step in my opinion, is that we must try to make preventative steps now, rather than reactive steps later, when it’s too late.

How is “Big Data” going to change healthcare?

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