See the big picture, make better decisions, improve things for the future. This is the mantra of any large organisation you care to mention, from advertising to journalism, to social media. It’s also true of healthcare: examine huge amounts of data, discover patterns, prevent a potential epidemic.
The last ten years or so have seen massive steps forward in the sheer volume of data that we as individuals generate, as advances in technology both contribute to, and analyse the ways that we generate it. Ever used a hashtag on Twitter or Instagram, answered an online questionnaire or indicated what your preferences are on a dating site? Bingo, you’ve contributed.
The trends that come out of all this information - the averages, if you will - are what is known as ‘Big Data’ - the points that researchers can glean from society as a whole on specific issues, both nationally and globally. Where this gets particularly useful from a humanitarian point of view is within healthcare.
We are living longer and so the ways that we receive treatment must adapt - this is where Big Data comes in. We need to understand more about patients, starting with their early lives, to hopefully flag any signs of serious illness at an earlier, and perhaps more treatable stage.
Aside from boosting profit and reducing waste, Big Data can help find cures for diseases, avoid preventable deaths and curb epidemics, and as the global population keeps increasing, that means more data to sift through.
Exercise trackers that record your movements throughout the day are just the start of this love affair we have with using digital technology to help us stay healthy. The next step with this is to have digital consultations with your doctor using the data that has been collected from these devices and apps - one of several suggestions of how the NHS is going to further embrace tech.
Access to all of this information documenting the state of national or global health will mean that potential problems could be spotted long before they develop into something unmanageable - time for medicine to catch up and provide a remedy, or at least education on limiting the effects of the discovery. From a doctor-patient standpoint, a doctor will be able to assess their patient’s recovery using a particular treatment based on information from other patients with the same condition, genetics of lifestyle.
Partnerships between data and medical professionals are already forming, fuelled by the ability to essentially get a head start on any potential issues. Apple and IBM announced in Spring 2015 that they would be collaborating on an initiative that would allow iPhone and Apple Watch users to share their data with IBM’s Watson Health cloud healthcare analytics service, with the hope that collecting this information may aid the discovery of new medical insights from real-time, up to date activity and biometrics
This is also good news for the R&D arms of pharmaceutical companies, with access to Big Data allowing them to better identify drug candidates and develop them into approved medicines more efficiently.
Over in the USA, the McKinsey Global Institute has estimated that using ‘Big Data’ to better inform decision-making could generate up to $100billion annually across the US healthcare system, by optimising the way that clinical trials take place, and creating processes that are tailored specifically to the issue at hand.
To really embrace Big Data as a vital tool within preventative healthcare, all of this data needs to be shared collectively, rather than archived by a patient’s clinic, hospital or surgery. However, sharing information continues to be a bone of contention among both patients and healthcare professionals - issues of confidentiality and the previously documented loss of records both contributing factors. It remains to be seen whether Big Data will be allowed to reach its potential within the wider healthcare system.