Follow Datanami:
March 26, 2014

Healthcare Agencies Ill-Prepared for Big Data, Report Says

Tiffany Trader

Big data analytics is positioned to offer the healthcare industry many benefits, such as improved trial safety, real-time disease tracking, and better outcomes, but first agencies must have the appropriate infrastructure and analytical capabilities in place. According to a recent survey conducted by MeriTalk on behalf of EMC, only one in three federal agencies has successfully launched at least one big data initiative. Yet more than half (59 percent) affirm that fulfilling their agency’s mission over the next five years will depend on successfully leveraging big data.

MeriTalk, a public-private partnership that serves the government IT sector, interviewed 150 federal executives who are focused on healthcare and healthcare research to get a sense of how federal healthcare agencies are using big data. The survey results are compiled in a report, called The Big Data Cure.

While the big data ecosystem is still young, agencies need to strategize how they will leverage the technologies in order to experience real returns, the authors of the report assert.

The federal health experts that were surveyed are confident in big data’s ability to transform health care. Sixty-three percent of respondents say big data will help track and manage population health more efficiently and 60 percent say big data will enhance the ability to deliver preventive care. Sixty-two percent say big data will significantly improve patient care within military health and VA systems.

On the flip side, few agencies report being ready for the coming changes. Fewer than one in five of those surveyed say their agency is very prepared to work with big data. Only 34 percent have invested in IT systems and solutions to optimize data processing and only 29 percent have trained IT professionals to manage and analyze big data.

The report identified two emerging technologies that represent early efforts to adopt data-focused technologies in the healthcare sector: mHealth and machine-to-machine (M2M). mHealth refers to the use of mobile and wireless devices to improve health outcomes, services and research, while M2M encompasses any technologies used to collect, monitor, or store healthcare information without human involvement. As an example, providers may use remote sensors to gather data such as blood pressure, heart rate or blood levels, which are then routed over the Internet to a central server where they can be analyzed and acted upon.

Out of those polled, 37 percent say their agencies have adopted mHealth solutions, while 15 percent have implemented M2M technologies today and 53 plan to do so within the next two years. The federal workers estimate that successfully leveraging M2M technologies can cut the cost of patient care nearly in half, and they anticipate the most significant impacts will be to diagnostics, medical research and urgent care.

“Forty-seven percent of Feds say the successful use of mHealth technologies and data has the potential to be more impactful than the discovery of penicillin,” said Steve O’Keeffe, founder of MeriTalk. “That’s a real shot in the arm for improving Federal healthcare.”

Perhaps the most surprising finding is that only one in three of those surveyed said their agency had successfully deployed at least one big data initiative, although nearly 60 percent cited big data technologies as integral to fulfilling their agency’s mission in the next five years. Asked what their first initiative addressed or would address, the respondents identified a range of objectives and projects, including containing costs, information assurance, data security, and the Affordable Care Act.

The positive impact of big data technologies on patient care was also emphasized. Out of those using big data today, 35 percent say they are improving patient care, 31 percent are engaged in reducing care costs, 28 percent are focused on boosting health outcomes, and 22 percent are looking to increase early detection.

There was consensus among respondents that security challenges would have to be addressed before the full benefits of big data could be achieved. Forty-three percent report that their agency has taken steps to enhance cyber-security in preparation for adopting big data technologies. Other IT transformations already underway include increased storage (52 percent), increased speed (35 percent), modernized backup/recovery (35 percent), investment in private cloud (25 percent), implementing mobile device management (24 percent) and investing in public cloud (15 percent).

The main takeaway from the report is that agencies still have work to be done when it comes to preparing for the data deluge. The study highlights needed enhancements in the areas of IT infrastructure, analytics capabilities, and data security. Education is another key; senior leadership and IT professionals need to be exposed to the opportunities of big data and trained in how to convert information to insight.

The survey queried executives from a number of healthcare-focused federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Defense or Defense Health Agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Food and Drug Administration, Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, and an “Other” category that includes Federal Operational Health, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and Public Health Service.