Healthcare’s Big Data Opportunity

Editor’s note: David Richards is the co-founder and CEO of WANdisco.

The hospitals where my grandchildren are born will be unrecognizable to those we know today; they’ll be safer, cleaner and more efficient. And what is considered world class in 2014 will tomorrow be viewed with the same disdain we reserve for medical practice in the Dark Ages.

Global healthcare is at a pivotal moment in its history, on a par with Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin and Louis Pasteur’s groundbreaking work with sterilization. As the quantity of data we generate rapidly expands and we continue to develop the computational power to store it, health authorities will be able to gather more information about their patients in a single year than has been open to them in all history.

While today we rely on the well-trained eye of the general practitioner and the steady hand of the surgeon, tomorrow’s lifesavers will be the number-crunching data scientists, individuals with only a passing understanding of first aid.

Tracking Big Data

Thanks to advancements in data analysis, almost everything that determines our health – from our individual genetic coding to our particular retail habits – is becoming knowable. With all this information at its fingertips, the medical profession is capable of spotting patterns of disease, gauging the efficacy of treatments and identifying links between causes and symptoms.

It has long been mooted that healthcare will be among the early big data winners. Intel recently announced that it is working with the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research on a new pilot initiative that is aimed at using data mined from wearable devices to detect patterns in the progression of the disease. The data will be collected on Intel’s software platform, and analysts will examine it to look for markers of Parkinson’s that couldn’t be perceived by the naked eye.

And earlier this year the University of Irvine Medical Center unveiled a radical scheme that is helping to reduce the number of deaths caused by medical error. My company, WANdisco, is helping the hospital use big data platform Hadoop to digitally collate, store and analyze all data relating to its patients’ conditions in real time. Electronic signals sent out by equipment such as heart monitors, ventilators or wearable devices can now be monitored whether the patient is in the hospital, at home or on the move.

This means that hospital staff are now alerted if a patient’s vital signs cross a key threshold – easing the burden on doctors and nurses whose heavy patient loads prevent 24/7 care – and essentially providing the equivalent of having a doctor in every room.

To this end the U.S. is leading the way. Across America we are seeing a steady increase in the number of data-driven strategies being implemented – progress that is transforming the standard of healthcare available to U.S. citizens. Many of today’s startups are at the heart of the action.

Jersey City’s Medical EMS recently teamed up with Bradshaw Consulting Services to improve the hospital’s ability to respond to emergency calls, where a minute can often mean the difference between life and death. The hospital now employs a system that collates geographic information system technology, wireless communications and GPS data to help response units arrive at their destinations more quickly, providing the emergency services with real-time analyses about where they are most likely to be needed.

Response rates now average fewer than six minutes, significantly lower than the national average of nine minutes. Before the system was installed, only one in five patients regained a pulse after suffering a cardiac arrest – today it’s one in two.

Michigan Health & Hospital Association’s Keystone Center is now using ArborMetrix’s technology to capture obstetrics data and reports at 60 hospitals across the state. The group’s hospitals are using data analytics to monitor readmission rates for pneumonia and heart failure, identifying patients treated at multiple facilities to more accurately calculate readmission rates. This is allowing its members to better understand what they will need to do to improve the quality of care for their patients while reducing operational costs.

The Fear in Numbers

But a look further afield suggests the appetite for big data hospitals is by no means universal.

Many have gone on record to say that, with the data records of the National Health Service (NHS), the U.K. has the potential to be the real leader for data-driven healthcare.

“We think that over the next three years Britain will become the most interesting country in the world when it comes to health technology,” U.K. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt told the Financial Times last year, adding that big data could “save thousands of lives … [driving] up our clinical standards to the very best in the world.”

Dating back to the 1940s, the NHS possesses vaults of information that, if centrally stored, could provide British doctors with an unparalleled insight into patient wellbeing. Having access to whole-population data, for example, would allow drug side effects to be picked up where they would previously go unreported.

Used effectively it could revolutionize treatments and help the U.K. take a lead in the bioscience industry. The U.K. has the potential to personalize healthcare for every NHS patient. The personal data that can risk score every NHS patient already exists. And it is already far more centralized and normalized than in countries such as the U.S., giving the U.K. the opportunity to become the world leader. Identifying people at risk of becoming ill or developing a serious condition and providing the foresight to prescribe preventive measures is a very real possibility.

But big data’s British advocates are doing a terrible job at articulating its benefits.

Unlike the U.S., Britain has fallen foul of a big data panic, fueled by a misguided belief that using anonymized patient records to offer improved healthcare would mark the first step on the road to the dystopian futures portrayed in 1984 and Brave New World.

Whereas the U.S. has managed to separate the revelations over spying and surveillance from discussions around big data, many in the U.K. view them as part of the same whole. Earlier this year, as a result of widespread public pressure, the NHS suspended its plans for, a central stash of patient records that researchers said could transform UK healthcare.

The main problem seems to have been attitudinal in nature, with Britons struggling to reconcile the trade-off between individual privacy and the collective benefits of medical research.

There can be no denying that the timing was unfortunate. Calls for to be shelved increased rapidly as people grew twitchy about data security, while Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA served as the ideal backdrop for civil libertarians arguing that citizens were signing away their privacy.

Equally damaging was the way in which the NHS persisted in ignoring this climate of apprehension. As newspaper headlines focused on the ongoing fallout from the Snowden affair – one that soon embroiled the U.K.’s own intelligence service – homes up and down the country were flooded on a weekly basis with leaflets that focused on how the government was going to access confidential records. Only in the small print was it made apparent that patients had a right to withhold their records.

A much more effective approach would have been to listen to the public fears and explain the life-enhancing implications of data-driven healthcare. How many millions could be saved by new treatments? How many lives currently cut short could be extended? And how many terminal diseases could be eradicated?

Open Tech

New tech is frequently mocked or feared before, ultimately, it is grudgingly accepted. When Bill Clinton introduced his human genome project in the 1990s the initial investment of $1 billion from the U.S. government was met with public outcry. However, it created a $150 billion industry and one of the most important medical breakthroughs of our generation. We stand on the verge of an even greater breakthrough on a global scale.

The more data that can be analyzed, the better the medical insights and the more lives that can be saved. In that context, it is everyone’s interests for big data to be embraced by the worldwide healthcare community – and not just the U.S.

We tend to think of medical progress as something that happens in laboratories, but the reality is that future breakthroughs may have less to do with chance discovery than the systematic analyses of existing data. And while these are the early days of data-driven hospitals, the writing is on the wall for healthcare as we know it.