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July 11, 2013

Big Data Faces Big Barriers to Adoption in Healthcare

Alex Woodie

Big data has the capacity to transform how medical care is delivered in this country and around the world, not only in the personal delivery of care, but in how research is conducted. But according to experts in the field, the laws on the books in the United States are hindering the adoption of big data analytics in healthcare.

Eric Dishman, the general manager of health and science at Intel, painted a promising picture of the future of big data-powered healthcare during recent interview conducted by Intel.

“Already we’re seeing healthcare entities around the world starting to use big data analytics for analyzing the claims and clinical data they have about patients, and figuring out which patients are at risk that we should intervening with before they become a problem, saving them a lot of pain and suffering and saving the healthcare system a lot of money,” Dishman said in the recent interview produced by Intel.

Currently, only the top-tier research hospitals and universities have the capability and funding to utilize big data in this manner. Once the model is worked out and costs are driven out of the equation, the promise of personalized healthcare will be closer to becoming a reality for a bigger population of patients.

“In the future, and not that far out in the future,” Dishman said, “we’re talking about really personal medicine, down to the individual level, where you can take genomics and medical history and data that’s coming from devices–where you’re capturing vital signs and other behavior traits for yourself, and munge all that together to help create a model of you as an individual patient, and help calculate what treatments are going to be effective. That is going to be the real game changer that the world is moving to.”

Intel also wants to improve the communication network that connects patients and doctors. “Hopefully, gone are the days of a solo practitioner seeing you, and you being the only one that has all of the data, if you’re lucky,” Dishman said. “We really are going to move to a team-based model of care and a coordinated model of care, where all of theses specialists and primary care doctors…are networked.”

This network involves using big data analytics, cloud services, and advances in communications (including smart pones and social media tools) to connect all the stakeholders involved in delivering care, Dishman explained.

The future is bright for big data in healthcare. But unless our legislators and policy makers get together to clarify some of the laws surrounding the privacy of healthcare data, the promise will go unfulfilled.

The problem stems from the sources of data that is to be consumed and analyzed. According to Deven McGraw of the Center for Democracy and Technology, the use of data that originates from doctors, hospitals, and health plans is covered under HIPAA. “They have provisions in them that deal with when you can use that data for research purposes,” McGraw said in the Intel interview. “Those policies are fairly specific and govern research uses of data that’s covered by HIPAA.”

However, there’s a lot of health data generated today that’s not covered by HIPAA, she says. “Data, for example, that might be collected by a pharmaceutical manufacturer in a clinical trial, or health data that might be collected based on the types of searches that people do online for health information, or the way people are using social media or mobile health apps to collected and store and use data. All of that data is not covered by HIPAA, so the ability to use that data for research purposes isn’t, in fact, covered by clear policy.”

This situation has led companies and organizations involved in the healthcare industry to make their own interpretations about the legality of using the data. “There’s a lot of confusion about those laws and how they apply,” McGraw says. “Some organizations are taking a very research-forward way of looking at data usage and interpreting the laws in a much more permissive way. And other institutions that maybe are not currently using their data for research purposes, and are a little bit more nervous about getting into this space, are interpreting them very conservatively.”

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