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

healthcare

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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