How Technology is Transforming the Healthcare Sector
In this day and age, it is tough to imagine a time when the healthcare sector was not as established. Fortunately, for us, medical technology has advanced at a fairly rapid pace, tackling ailments with the concomitant rise in the global population and urbanization.
The World Health Organization defines Health Technology as ‘the application of organized knowledge and skills in the form of devices, medicines, vaccines, procedures, and systems developed to solve a health problem and improve quality of lives.’ With the growth of the global population, there was a massive rise in the data collected, and the advent of newer technologies that simplify the entire process of data storage, it’s not surprising that big data analytics found a place in the healthcare system.
IBM explains big data analytics as ‘the use of advanced analytic techniques against very large, diverse data sets that include structured, semi-structured and unstructured data, from different sources, and in different sizes from terabytes to zettabytes.’ Big data analytics is believed to be significantly more efficient than relational databases, which do not have the capability to assess the extensive and ever-growing repository of health-related information. The technology has created ripples in most industries, but it is arguably the most advantageous for healthcare applications; what’s better than saving lives, right? This article discusses the concept of big data analytics, the role it plays in the healthcare sector, and why we need it now more than ever.
How Does Big Data Analytics Fit Into the Healthcare Framework?
Big data in healthcare pertains to the data that are accumulated owing to the increased prevalence of digitization of collection and storage of health-related information. Thus, on a fundamental level, big data in healthcare helps the storage and analysis of patient’s medical information that can be too huge to be processed via traditional data storage and analysis methods. This is helpful for both medical professionals as well as patients. Here’s a look at the main benefits arising out of the intersection between the two.
Six major benefits of big data in healthcare:
- Better data collection and storage
Big data primarily helps process heaps of healthcare information, and more importantly, it also gathers data from various sources. Today, we have wearable devices, which monitor the patient’s sleep pattern, heart rate, blood pressure, and even glucose. The data obtained from the monitoring of the user’s vitals can allow healthcare organizations to detect and resolve health concerns by providing point-of-care treatments in time. The process is still being developed, but the data that is being collected through different means, such as healthcare wearables, will define how physicians identify the best course of treatment for each patient.
- Improved health care
Big data is not just revolutionizing the way we store medical data and help patients with timely point-of-care treatments and more accurate predictions of health issues; it also facilitates the use of data to improve the existing healthcare infrastructure. No doubt, big data is a boon to science and technology. To understand its benefits better, let’s think of every health aspect of a person as a data point, for instance, history of diseases, family history, or some disorders they may be prone to due to their genetics. With the growing population, there is a rise in the number of permutations and combinations of these data points.To put things in perspective, a particular health aspect would help formulate better therapeutic approaches – imagine this method being used to help millions of people stay healthy.Tiranee Achalakul, Associate Professor, Dept. of Computer Engineering, King Mongkut’s Univ. of Technology Thonburi, in her interesting TED talk titled ‘Using Big Data to Improve Healthcare Services,’ puts forward an idea of a health-bot that could help patients get personalized healthcare. She illustrates with a scenario where the patient could ask the bot something as simple as if they should be eating a particular dish or not, and the bot would reply based on an analysis of the medical information it contains about the patient.IBM’s Watson is an excellent example of how Artificial Intelligence can be used to browse through various databases to find treatment methods for diseases. Advancements in the field are not so far down the road, and until then, researchers are accumulating more and more data to have a more exhaustive database. Big data cannot just provide solutions for standard problems, but can also offer customized therapies for individual-centric health issues.
- Cost reduction
Big data is also useful in reducing the cost associated with traditional healthcare. Predictive healthcare allows for the patient to be treated based on the data retrieved from their healthcare devices like wearables. This not only allows timely and accurate treatment, but it also helps avoid patient admission to the hospital, subsequently reducing the load on the healthcare infrastructure. Predictive healthcare, when done right, will also bring down the rate of readmissions to hospitals. This will also help hospitals optimize the resources they have at their disposal and use them efficiently. There is an underlying benefit for the insurance industry, too, as they can save money by backing healthcare devices so that patients do not need to go to the hospital. Such measures prove beneficial for the people who require first-hand care at hospitals as this can be expected to leave adequate resources like beds and staff to allocate their time to these patients in need.
- Prevention Over Cures
We’ve all heard that saying. The medical world primarily aims to avoid diseases and illnesses altogether. Wearables like the Fitbit tracker or Apple Watch monitor the level of physical activity of users and maintain a track of health-related trends. The data gathered through these devices and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors are sent to cloud servers, which is then available to physicians who can refer to it as part of their treatment. IoT has helped develop devices like Apple Watch and Fitbit health trackers that track physical movement and help improve the user’s overall health. The data collected by these devices are sent to physicians to enable them to monitor patient health.The past few years have seen partnerships between these IoT devices and healthcare companies that are helping us move further towards the common objective of advanced healthcare.Fitbit has partnered with United Healthcare’s wellness program Motion, which gives insurance-holders up to $1,500 USD annually to use the devices. One Drop, by Informed Data Systems Inc., employs mobile computing and data science to help patients living with diabetes across the globe. On the other hand, Apple’s CareKit, HealthKit, and ResearchKit run on the technology in Apple’s phones, helping patients handle their health issues and allowing researchers to gather data from its several million users in the world. Apple had also announced a collaborative effort with Stanford researchers to study if the heart sensor in Apple Watch can detect atrial fibrillation, which causes the death of nearly 130,000 Americans every year. If the device is successful in recognizing the condition, Apple will be able to notify users that they need medical attention.Predictive healthcare has many aspects that can be advantageous to both the professional and the patient. Many times medical professionals can prescribe the wrong drugs or give a different medication by error. These errors can also be reduced with the help of big data by referring to the prescribed medicine. It can also alert the professional in case of wrong or different medication to reduce human error and potentially save lives. The technology is a relief for professionals who have to go through numerous patients in a single day.
- Comprehensive patient context
Rhonda Hughes is the Director of the Center for Nursing Leadership and an Associate Professor at the University of South Carolina College of Nursing, Columbia. In her TED talk titled ‘Improving health outcomes with big data,’ Hughes explains why patient context is important and how big data, backed by extensive, combined, and growing databases, can improve healthcare. Patient context umbrellas all information about the patient and Hughes talks about information pertaining to patient vitals but many other factors that affect their perspective and health and even the perspective of the patient’s care provider. This is just an example, but big data can go above and beyond. These are data points, and now that big data is increasingly being implemented in healthcare applications, these data points keep adding up, building upon the existing databases.
- Genomics and personalized healthcare
Genomics is defined as the ‘the branch of molecular biology concerned with the structure, function, evolution, and mapping of genomes.’ Big data analytics, combined with genomics, will result in better, more effective, and more accurate therapeutics based on individuals and their distinct genomic sequencing. Big data will help offer more personalized or customized treatments to patients to address their individual health concerns. However, scientists are still exploring the applications of genomics and big data to improve healthcare; it is predicted to be the future of the medical field. In the coming years, professionals will have access to both wider and individual-oriented medical databases, which will allow them to determine the most suitable therapy and medication for patients and help hospitals employ their resources optimally. Currently, researchers are attempting to retrieve as much data as they can and studying humans and their health conditions to build a robust foundation for the database that will revolutionize how medical professionals tackle health issues.
How will big data help advance healthcare?
Coming to the most important question, why is big data more crucial now than ever? A few years ago, Bill Gates warned us about a pandemic, urging us to be more prepared for the same by adopting different measures. Now, we have coronavirus (COVID-19) on our hands. At times like these, big data analytics can be extremely helpful in creating a database with different data points, for instance, allergies, which will help in the development and deployment of vaccines that can effectively defend the human race against such viruses. In this and other cases, big data will definitely advance most of what we know about healthcare, but one thing seems certain, that it will transform the medical realm for the better.