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October 26, 2015

Using Big Data to Its Full Potential in Healthcare

Rachel Delacour

As the world’s population is living longer, treatment delivery models need to quickly evolve, and many of these changes are being driven by data. The focus now is on understanding as much about a patient as possible, hopefully picking up warning signs of serious illness at an early enough stage that treatment is easier and cheaper. But in order to harness the potential of big data, contributors will need to consent to sharing their data.

There is a huge opportunity in the healthcare market for better tools to leverage big data, but a lack of current use.  Beyond improving profits and cutting down on wasted overhead, big data in healthcare is being used to predict epidemics, cure disease, improve quality of life and avoid preventable illness.  We are already seeing a shift in attitudes in select areas of the healthcare market, but there are still some huge barriers that prevent big data from being used to the same extent it is in other industries.

One area that I’d like to highlight for improvement is the management, sharing, and leveraging of individual personal health data for the greater good. For example, there could be huge advancements in cracking the causes of cancer through the use of big data, but accessing that amount of information and detail could be an invasion of a patient’s right to privacy. There is still a lot of skepticism among the public about how their data is used and by whom, that would need to be addressed before progress could be made in this area.  As an industry, we need to focus on building people’s trust whilst highlighting the benefits proper data analytics could bring to turn the tide on these huge world issues.

One of our clients, Thea Laboratories, an independent pharmaceutical company present in over 65 countries, compile insightful data from their sales reps about their customer base. They have 70 pharmaceutical sales reps who have detailed tracking on doctor prescriptions, which empowers each one of them to better understand their market by product, geography, and type of prescriber. This information is kept securely for internal use to protect patient confidentiality, but if it were openly accessible, the possibilities for tracking illness or disease by region and therefor preventing the spread of it could be endless.

Another one of our clients, BokaDoktorn, label themselves as an “independent hub for efficient collaboration” for sharing sensitive information between health insurance providers, clinics and their patients. Their user network comprises some 2,500 doctors, 700 physiotherapists, and 200 psychologists across Sweden in institutions of all sizes ranging from smaller medical centers through to large hospitals. The large size of their network allows for fully comprehensive data quality across the entire treatment process from diagnosis, with doctors inputting symptoms and applicable treatment, through to invoicing insurance providers, and all abiding by the upcoming EU standards on the management, storage and sharing of personal health information.

Many countries around the globe are actively looking into how to best use the data that is being created everyday by citizens. In the US, the Federal Trade Commission has called upon US Congress several times to regulate big data brokers so that US citizens might have some say in how they use the information that is being created. Nordic countries have some of the best research institutions and medical universities (The Karolinska Institute in Sweden for example) that are leading the way in big data analytics when it comes to healthcare. They also have an open, forward looking approach at a government level which helps to encourage development in this space. The UK has a very centralized delivery model in the NHS and we can see certain examples there of using big data both for patient care, but also for balancing resources and budgets.  This being said, individual insurance companies are often quicker and more open to wider adoption of big data analytics.

So while we are seeing these some steps forward when it comes to the use of big data in healthcare, we are still years away from using big data to its full potential. All it takes is a headline in a newspaper about a data “breach” to set us back again, in the eyes of the public.  I think the challenge here is as much about managing the shifting perception as it is about continuing to improve on privacy and security around patient information.


About the author: Rachel Delacour is the CEO and co-founder of BIMERachel Delacour Analytics. Rachel’s professional experiences in finance and controlling brought her to the realization that business intelligence was just too hard: too hard to use, too hard to manage, too hard to buy, and too hard to get right. Seeing a real business need for BI tools in the age of cloud computing led her to found We Are Cloud, the parent company of BIME Analytics, which was recently acquired by Zendesk.

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