The power of Big Data in the healthcare industry extends beyond just cutting costs and improving profits. By applying this information in intelligent and innovative ways, we could vastly improve disease treatment, containment, and patient quality of life.

In 2008, Google engineers developed an algorithm that compiled and compared keyword searches to identify where potential flu outbreaks were occurring. According to some studies, Google was able to predict outbreaks in areas up to ten days before they were reported to the CDC. Google has sunset this program, and now reports the data directly to hospitals like Boston’s Children Hospital and institutions like the CDC.

Ideas like these represent a leap in public health management from reacting to outbreaks of disease to proactively containing them before they get too unwieldy. The growth of the Internet of Things will make this kind of healthcare and health management even easier. With wearables becoming ever more sophisticated and popular, health care professionals will gain a level of insight into a person’s everyday health that has been impossible up until now.

Wearables and the Untapped Source of Big Data

Once clunky wristwatch-type devices only capable of measuring walking and movement, today’s healthcare wearables are now sleek, chic, and feature a range of capabilities. The June Bracelet looks like simple jewelry, but can actually measure the amount of UV radiation its wearer is exposed to. Meanwhile, devices like CarePredict’s Tempo record your heart rhythms in a digital journal and send notifications to loved ones when the rhythms become irregular.

This kind of data has the ability to open up a whole new field of preventative medicine and treatment. When doctors and health professionals can collate and parse massive amounts of information, they can find connections that were previously unimaginable.

One of the most difficult aspects of identifying cancer is the misattribution and underreporting of symptoms. With strategically applied Big Data, doctors and patients can identify symptoms earlier on when the disease is not too far progressed. Instead of simply reacting to major symptoms of cancer, a doctor can catch early indicators by looking at vital signs from a patient’s wearable like decreased respiratory rate, sluggish movement, and poor sleep.

A Healthier Population Through More Information

Big data’s impact on health care extends beyond merely one-on-one patient care — it can revolutionize how hospitals operate and treat populations at large for sudden outbreaks of diseases like the flu, or for chronic diseases like obesity. Certain companies and researchers are making great headway with genomic sequencing, and this information could one day be used to identify which populations are more at risk for certain diseases and disorders.

Three Pittsburgh Universities have formed a Health Alliance to accomplish exactly that. They want to use big data to alert doctors when their patients show the first signs of organ transplant rejection, or tell patients the foods that their genes indicate are best for weight loss. According to UPMC CEO Jeffrey Romoff, this alliance could possibly “unlock the potential of data to tackle some of our nation’s biggest challenges: raising the quality and reducing the cost of health care.”

With the volume, velocity, and variety of data points that are about to flow into hospitals and healthcare institutions like the CDC, Big Data analytics is the only hope in extracting information from these massive datasets. But just like the companies that are tackling big stores of genomic data, the information that is coming in won’t necessarily be of the same quality, or even the same type. Making it coherent and understandable within the context that health professionals need it becomes the most important task.

Companies, hospitals, and researchers will need the appropriate appropriate tools to separate, contextualize, and collate all this information in an effective way. If the quality of the data is poor, then any conclusions drawn will be useless at best, and disastrous at worst.

Staying on the Right Side of the Law and of Patients’ Health

The final and most difficult barrier health care providers and professionals will face with Big Data and health is legislation. Currently, HIPAA prevents a lot of the data sharing that would be most beneficial to doctors and researchers. Violating this law could garner health care workers fines from $100 for every record shared illegally, to $1.5 million per year.

In order to adequately and effectively use Big Data, companies and institutions will need to establish a data strategy — simply taking huge data sets and identifying a random trend or correlation will not lead to real advances. With the right tools, the right data, and the right team of researchers and professionals, companies can jump the hurdles big data faces in health care and make the most of its great potential.