Better Health Care Through Data

By Kathy Pretz

NOTE: This is an overview of the entire article, which appeared in the September 2014 issue of IEEE’s the institute magazine.
Click here to read the entire article.

NOTE: This article is part of IEEE’s September 2014 special report on big data, covering technologies that support and make sense of the growing mountains of data, and several of its applications.

Keeping people healthy is a costly undertaking. The price of medication, cost of hospital stays, plus doctors’ fees and medical tests, have caused health-care costs around the world to skyrocket. The World Health Organization (WHO) attributes much of this to wasteful spending on such things as ineffective drugs and duplicate procedures and paperwork, as well as missed disease-prevention opportunities.

According to the WHO, all countries can do a great deal to improve the efficiency of their health care systems, which would release resources that could be used to cover more people, more services, and more of the costs.

It is estimated that the health-care industry could save billions by using big-data health analytics to mine the treasure trove of information in electronic health records, insurance claims, prescription orders, clinical studies, government reports, and laboratory results.

Analytics could be used to systematically review clinical data so that treatment decisions could be based on the best available data instead of on physicians’ judgment alone. Long waits at hospitals for a room could be reduced once calculations can be made to predict when beds might become empty. Flu outbreaks could be contained if health authorities could track the numbers and locations of those who contract the illness.

And finally, ordinary people will gain more control. “We have to figure out how to use these data and technologies to help people make health-enhancing choices,” says IEEE Senior Member Michael S. Johnson. He is director of utility-care data analysis for the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, in Oakland, Calif. Several health-analysis initiatives are under way at Kaiser and other organizations.

Kaiser has the most electronic health records in the United States. Occupying about 30 petabytes of storage, these records double almost every two years, according to Johnson. Although Kaiser began creating electronic records about a decade ago, it just recently developed analytical tools to make sense of the information to improve care.

Several other health analysis projects were outlined in “A Look at Challenges and Opportunities of Big-Data Analytics in Health Care,” written by researchers from Cisco Systems, including IEEE Senior Member Raghunath Nambiar, the company’s chief architect for big-data solutions.

Big data will continue to help researchers develop individualized treatment plans and improve quality of life in at least three ways – by reducing trial-and-error prescribing, avoiding adverse drug reactions, and preventing unnecessary hospitalizations.

“Today the health care industry is just beginning to understand all the innovative things that can be done with big data,” wrote the Cisco researchers. “Integrating data from various sources can build predictive models that can lower overall cost and improve quality of care significantly. New data sources and analytics technologies are expected to emerge in the near future that will change the way medicine is practiced.”