Big Data Infographics

Can Big Data Cure Diseases?


Two-thirds of federal executives working in healthcare-focused agencies believe that big data will improve population health management and preventive care. But even though feds report in a new study that they must tap into emerging technologies such as wireless health devices and machine-to-machine monitoring systems, only a small percentage of government agencies have implemented them.

According to the findings, 63% of federal IT professionals feel that big data will help track and manage population health more efficiently, 62% view big data as a way to significantly improve patient care within military health and Veterans Affairs (VA) systems, and 60% believe big data will improve how preventive care is delivered.

Although people have entered medical data into a computer since the existence of the technology, it’s only in the last few years that electronic health records have reached a tipping point of adoption. Now most major and mid-sized medical centers use them.

Government pushes through provisions of the 2009 stimulus package and the Affordable Care Act have also sped up the process by making EHRs useful for multiple purposes such as health management and research, and creating and enforcing standards about what fields should be in the records and what form those fields should be in. Because there are several different companies making EHRs, having standardized fields ensures records can be combined across years, cases, hospitals and states.

The ACA has also beefed up anti-discrimination laws, meaning hospitals can’t use the big data resources to cherry-pick patients.

Medical organizations are also researching what should be included and how. Forrest recently participated in an Institute of Medicine publication detailing which individual factors needed to be in EHRs. The group found employment, food and housing security, stress, health literacy and dietary patterns were some factors that could influence how patients and doctors discuss and deal with health.

“This is a profound change – to get, in a very standardized way, information about people’s social lives and their behavior and some physiological attributes consistently into electronic health records is going to greatly help clinicians, health professionals and ultimately patients manage their health in a way they haven’t been able to in the past,” he says. “These are new metrics that kind of compliment your blood count, urine analysis, to get a more complete picture of patient health.”

While traditional disease taxonomy has treated all types of asthma as one condition, using big data, doctors are learning there are actually many subtypes of diseases and, within cancer, your genetic profile can make a big difference.

Social factors, once largely ignored in the health system, can also impact how a disease progresses, which is why they are important to include in EHRs.

“One disease in a poor person might be very different in a wealthy person,” Krumholz says. “They can afford medication. They can afford 24-hour nurses. They can put a comfortable hospital bed in their home. That may make a disease very different for a person who can’t afford food, much less the medication.”

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