Big data is healthcare’s biggest threat – and also its likely savior


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Healthcare CIOs must feel ill some days. They are under pressure by boards of directors and governments to keep costs down, while the medical establishment and government simultaneously foist more requirements to collect, store and analyze ever-increasing volumes of data. It’s a headache that no amount of aspirin will fix.

Ironically, it may turn out that the CIOs’ latter problem can be a cure for the former. That is – given the right technology – insights gleaned from data soon will be the key to holding down healthcare expenditures while still improving patient care overall.

Healthcare under the knife (and the gun)

Our current medical predicament is happening at a time when governments everywhere are hampered in how they can respond. In Europe, some nations have been forced to make major cuts to healthcare. According to the OECD Health Data 2012 report, compared with the prior year, the Irish government slashed its healthcare budget by 7.6 percent; in Greece, lawmakers hacked a whopping 13 percent. Even relatively stable (and generous) nations, such as Demark and Norway, have trimmed government health spending.

In the United States, the Obama Administration has proposed $401 billion in budget reductions over 10 years to government-funded Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Ailments affect industry, too

While cutting subsidies, governments also are putting the industry under the gun to gather and store more information, adding to the compliance burden of IT. For example, as part of a movement toward evidence-based medicine, the Affordable Healthcare Act in the U.S., (better known as Obamacare), created the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, which will gather data on as many as 12 million patients over long periods to determine which treatments are the most efficacious for a given ailment. It will unquestionably produce an enormous amount of data – with a corresponding burden for all involved to handle it all.

In addition to requirements from external authorities, CIOs also face daunting data demands from inside. For example, a standard EKG machine gathers about 1,000 data points per second. A two-dimensional mammogram requires 120 MB for each image, while a 3D MRI can hit 150 Mbytes and a 3D CT scan can top one gigabyte per image. All that information—both structured and unstructured data formats—must be stored and accessible for the life of the patient.

Looming close on the horizon is vast patient genomic data and its promise for personalized medicine. In short, there is a building tidal wave of data coming straight at an already ailing healthcare industry.

Prescription: More data in your diet

Yet, all this data may be the cure for the modern healthcare industry. In the United States, where healthcare already gobbles up 17.6 percent of the nation’s GDP, a recent McKinsey & Co. report suggests a shocking $600 billion is being misspent annually. The report suggests that a combination of data-driven, evidence-based medicine and modern tools to prod patients to lead healthier lives will go a long way to reducing those wasted billions of dollars, a process that’s already underway.

For example, Eric Topol, an eminent cardiologist, has been widely profiled as an enthusiastic practitioner of mobile-health initiatives. He says that judicious application of smartphones and software can save patients, insurers and governments enormous amounts of money.  In one interview he showed an app available now that can deliver the results of a standard echocardiogram for patients – resulting in the savings of approximately $800 per test. With millions of echocardiograms conducted each year, the projected savings are enormous.

M-health is already one of the healthiest parts of the booming smartphone app market. There are 97,000 m-health apps available today and the market is predicted to reach $26 billion in 2017.

What’s common about these simple, inexpensive smartphone tools is that massive amounts of data is collected on anonymized patients that can be analyzed to benefit others without having to embark on major research projects. Through evidence-based medicine, overall patient care is improved at far less cost.

A positive prognosis

I see four critical reasons to be optimistic that healthcare will get better, and soon, for individuals:

First, we are seeing a global shift from “cookbook style” diagnosis – where symptoms are treated by a recipe approach – to evidence-based medicine, which applies data-centric methods to both diagnose and offer treatment.

Second, there is a major effort industry-wide to collect as much medical data as possible, in any format, to analyze and accurately determine proper treatment for ailments.

Third, with smartphones in hand, patients themselves are being empowered and learning to monitor personal health data themselves. And often at a fraction of the cost of the past.

And finally, IT vendors have finally delivered a processor, networking, and database infrastructure that is capable of handling the data volumes and variety of information fast enough.

Together these factors should help usher the healthcare industry into a new era of efficiency that still offers far better outcomes for patients.

<emIrfan Khan is general manager for SAP Big Data. Follow him on Twitter @i_kHANA

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Photo courtesy of rangizzz/


Sanjay Abraham

I agree with you Irfan Khan. Most of the diagnosis & treatments today depend on the Doctors ‘gut feeling’ and less on insights from hard data. Data Visulaizations from these zetas of data coming from MRIs, ECGs, Path reports, U/S, Xrays etc could help in better diagnosis and treatments.

Victoria Neslon

Agreed to the fact that technology is quite a savior to our health care system but it has a dark side too. Technology can also bring hidden dangers if you aren’t careful. The internet in particular is known for this. Though some would disagree, the infinite stream of medical knowledge available online is not necessarily a good thing. It can never replace your doctor or your physician because self diagnosis is a dangerous road to go down. So its always necessary to take proper precaution before going to self diagnose yourself. Same as in the case of your health insurance policy, it is convenient to get quotes online or buy your health care policy online but getting proper details by the insurance adviser and then selecting your suitable cover is always a right method to buy insurance policy.


Very true, Technology today affects every single aspect of modern society. In fact, there isn’t an industry out there that hasn’t been affected by the hi-tech revolution. But nowhere is this immense impact more apparent than in the field of medicine and healthcare. Technological breakthroughs are revolutionizing the way healthcare is being delivered. Without any doubt this technology revolution improves peoples quality of life also results in significant saving in health care world. Patient files , insurance quotes and even premium amount can be submitted by smart phones these days. All the leading health care brands created separate website for their smart phone user so that they can get better experience.

Steve Ardire

Nice post !

> CIOs also face daunting data demands from inside. For example, a standard EKG machine gathers about 1,000 data points per second. A two-dimensional mammogram requires 120 MB for each image, while a 3D MRI can hit 150 Mbytes and a 3D CT scan can top one gigabyte per image. All that information—both structured and unstructured data formats—must be stored and accessible for the life of the patient.

Partho P. Sengupta, MD, of The Mount Sinai Medical Center Honored by The American Society of Echocardiography

Backstory: Dr. Sengupta reached out to for our predictive analytic capabilities that enhanced diagnosis.  Saffron was featured in Keynote at Echocardiogram Conference where Dr. Sengupta from Mt. Sinai Hospital received the Feigenbaum Prize for his contributions to echo cardiology 

Here’s Part 2

Quotes on his presentation

“Dr. Sengupta’s presentation was nothing short of remarkable,” says Neil J. Weissman, MD, FASE, 2014-15 President-Elect for ASE who serves as President of MedStar Health Research Institute and Professor of Medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine. “It will go down in the history of the ASE Scientific Sessions for both its powerful message and impactful presentation media.”

“The echocardiogram data is very high dimensional. We can measure volumes, velocities, stress, displacements and more across many locations of the heart at all time frames over each beat. As a researcher-practitioner, I can see the patterns and know that they are
also highly nonlinear; the variables are all interacting with each other. But no analytic method I have tried has had any success to address this kind of problem. It is not possible to abstract a single indicator of each disease state. You seem to be doing something very new and different with associative memories”

“The talk was transformative and a wake-up call,” Susan Wiegers, MD, FACC, FASE, Vice President for ASE and Senior Associate Dean of Faculty Affairs and Professor of Medicine at Temple University School of Medicine. “Dr. Sengupta’s vision is compelling and laid out the road map for the way forward.

Michael Sinsheimer

Now if these legacy systems and different constituencies could actually work together to get to these 4 objectives….Not so easy for a multitude of reasons.

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