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Big Data is a Big Deal in Healthcare

October 7, 2013


Sharon Terry, President and Chief Executive Officer of Genetic Alliance, asserts, “I find myself becoming increasingly optimistic that we are approaching a tipping point for the consumer movement in health.” [“Big Data Is Good for Your Health,” Forbes, 1 July 2013] Her optimism is fueled by the fact that supermarkets can provide personalized offers to their customers based on loyalty card and point of sale data. If supermarkets can get personal, Terry believes that healthcare providers certainly should be able to provide personalized service as well. If there is one area where personalization is desirable, healthcare is that sector. Terry insists that personalized healthcare “is a movement that will enable consumers to be more active participants in their own health, gain more personalized care and contribute to the acceleration of clinical research and the quest to ameliorate disease.”


Another reason for optimism is that an enormous amount of data already exists in the healthcare sector and that mountain of data grows each day. The following infographic provided by Healthcare IT Connect provides a good overview of the Big Data big picture in the healthcare sector. [“Big Data is a Big Deal,” by Zach Urbina, 15 May 2013]




Two things really stood out for me in that infographic. First, 80% of healthcare data is unstructured. That means that natural language processing is essential if any real insights are going to be obtained from the data. Second, I thought that the “6 ways that Big Data can transform healthcare” were particularly enlightening. I suspect that Terry agrees that Big Data will transform healthcare in all those ways. She notes that the healthcare sector has “a great deal of work to be done to catch up to [its] counterparts in the retail industry, but just as advances in online, mobile and social technology forever changed the face of shopping, those technologies, combined with breakthroughs in genetic and molecular science, are fueling unprecedented change in healthcare.” Tibco analysts report, “Healthcare organizations are increasingly embracing big data to bolster the quality of care while reducing costs, according to a recent survey of senior level executives.” [Trends and Outliers, 27 August 2013] Let’s take a closer look at how Big Data can transform healthcare, starting with research.


Support Research: Genomics and Beyond


Dr. Bonnie Feldman writes, “Genomics is making headlines in both academia and the celebrity world. With intense media coverage of Angelina Jolie’s recent double mastectomy after genetic tests revealed that she was predisposed to breast cancer, genetic testing and genomics have been propelled to the front of many more minds. In this new data field, companies are approaching the collection, analysis, and turning of data into usable information from a variety of angles.” [“Genomics and the Role of Big Data in Personalizing the Healthcare Experience,” The Doctor Weighs In, 14 September 2013] For those unfamiliar with the field of genomics, Feldman explains:

“Genomics is the study of the complete genetic material (genome) of organisms. The field includes sequencing, mapping, and analyzing a wide range of RNA and DNA codes, from viruses and mitochondria to many species across the kingdoms of life. Most pertinent here are intensive efforts to determine the entire DNA sequence of many individual humans in order to map and analyze individual genes and alleles as well as their interactions. The primary goal that drives these efforts is to understand the genetic basis of heritable traits, and especially to understand how genes work in order to prevent or cure diseases. The amount of data being produced by sequencing, mapping, and analyzing genomes propels genomics into the realm of Big Data. Genomics produces huge volumes of data; each human genome has 20,000-25,000 genes comprised of 3 million base pairs. This amounts to 100 gigabytes of data, equivalent to 102,400 photos. Sequencing multiple human genomes would quickly add up to hundreds of petabytes of data, and the data created by analysis of gene interactions multiplies those further.”

Feldman goes on to explain that the Holy Grail of medicine is to provide individualized treatments for patients. Perhaps the most transformative result of genomic research will be the prediction and treatment of diseases before they actually affect a patient. Feldman explains:

“Personal genomics – understanding each individual’s genome – is a necessary foundation for predictive medicine, which draws on a patient’s genetic data to determine the most appropriate treatments. Medicine should accommodate people of different shapes and sizes. By combining sequenced genomic data with other medical data, physicians and researchers can get a better picture of disease in an individual. The vision is that treatments will reflect an individual’s illness, and not be a one treatment fits all, as is too often true today.”

Terry puts it this way, “With access to more information than ever, consumers can take control of their healthcare in ways never before imagined.” Elizabeth Rudd notes, “Health issues are increasingly monitored and recorded electronically creating large amounts of data about an individual’s health in the process.” [“Big Data- About You,” Innovation Management.se, 13 February 2013] Although medical personnel prescribe the use of some of those devices, increasingly individuals are buying equipment to monitor themselves. They are part of group known as the Quantified Self movement. Wikipedia explains the movement this way:

“The Quantified Self[ is a movement to incorporate technology into data acquisition on aspects of a person’s daily life in terms of inputs (e.g., food consumed, quality of surrounding air), states (e.g., mood, arousal, blood oxygen levels), and performance (mental and physical). Such self-monitoring and self-sensing, which combines wearable sensors (EEG, ECG, video, etc.) and wearable computing, is also known as lifelogging. Other names for using self-tracking data to improve daily functioning are ‘self-tracking’, ‘auto-analytics’, ‘body hacking’ and ‘self-quantifying’.”

As the healthcare sector aligns itself better in the Big Data era, all of these devices are likely to become part of the Internet of Things (a massive network that will involve machine-to-machine (M2M) communication). Members of the Quantified Self movement are likely to share their collected data with their primary physician, whose cognitive computing system will automatically track a patient’s vital data and alert the physician if something worrisome arises. This kind of M2M monitoring will benefit both the healthy and sick. Terry concludes that each passing day “brings us one day closer to a time when our healthcare is as personalized as our commerce, which will empower all of us to participate more actively in our own health.”


Tibco analysts note that, in addition to personalized healthcare, Big Data is transforming healthcare in other ways. “Data analytics,” they write, “are being used for revenue cycle management, resource utilization, fraud and abuse prevention, population health management, and quality improvement.” The infographic above claims that billions of dollars can be saved by leveraging Big Data analytics. With healthcare costs being a major concern in the U.S., such savings would be a blessing. That’s why Big Data is such a big deal in the healthcare sector.

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