Is big data in healthcare finally gearing up to provide the types of groundbreaking medical breakthroughs we’ve been promised?

Data collection is not a new concept. Before the digital age arrived and made the term “big data” as ubiquitous as it is today, car mechanics, stock brokers, and accountants were all collecting information on their customers and using it to either make the next interaction easier or more informed. The healthcare industry is no exception.

For years, doctors have been viewing charts packed full of information and using it to draw conclusions and make life-saving diagnosis. Yet this is merely a microcosm of what big data analytics can do for the healthcare industry at large.

We’ve often talked about how big data needs to have big context—data can sometimes lose its meaning without a sense of what it looks like in the bigger picture. This is especially true in the healthcare industry. For example, even if a healthcare provider captured and recorded numerous tests over the course of a patient’s life, it would be tremendously difficult to use that one piece of patient data to inform a healthcare recommendation for another patient. Up until now, it’s been up to the doctors to use their own experience, intelligence, and intuition to connect cases and save lives—the bigger picture was hardly ever part of the equation.

Now, finally, the digital revolution has opened the pathways so that data can be used in a symphony with itself. Patient records stored as big data can be manipulated from their rawest form into usable info that can identify trends, prescriptively make recommendations, and assess risk factors. This information can even be used in the most basic healthcare big data project—the human genome. We now have the potential to make connections that the medical industry could have only dreamed of a generation ago.

Fortunately, the healthcare profession hasn’t entered the 21st century without at least a little foresight into the future of analysis. Relational databases built on patient data are already being used, as are operational dashboards for those concerned with the inner workings of the healthcare system.

But this industry has yet to achieve big data as we truly mean big data. We’re still waiting for the day when every medical record can be used simultaneously to help save lives. Using the type of unstructured raw information we’re referring to will help to make the types of groundbreaking medical breakthroughs we’ve been promised in healthcare for so long.

Looking to the future

As the technology continues to get better and the healthcare industry continues their digital transformation, the future looks bright. The massive potential of accessible medical data to affect real change in healthcare will only get better from here. Some trends to watch for include:

  • Investment in the application and architecture of the Internet of Things and M2M revolution. Information collected from devices like mHealth wearables will only continue to enhance and enrich the amount of big data.
  • The adoption of technologies like natural language processing and predictive analytics. As of right now, these are mostly used to process text data in medical notes and social media.
  • Reductions in the barriers that have held the healthcare industry back from making the bold move into big data. This includes the standardization of the bits collected.
  • A move to establishing secure ways to collect the data.
  • A spike in the demand to employ and train people with the expertise to use big data.
  • A change in mentality as to how patient care is executed. Self-quantification will make it possible for patients to act more like consumers and take control of their own data, while healthcare providers can play the role of consultant, guiding patients on the best ways to act on the data.

Groups like Optum Labs are already trying to create the building blocks that will be necessary to use big data to save lives. Combine that with the recent news that 40 percent of U.S. healthcare providers are increasing investment in IT (big data and analytic initiatives included) and it’s beginning to look like all those big data possibilities could soon be realities.