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Fulfilling the Big Promise of Big Data

  • February 11, 2016|
  • 2 years ago

by Tom Foley

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Director, Global Health Solution Strategy

Fulfilling the Big Promise of Big Data

Big data is a big deal – and not just in healthcare. Across industries, big data helps to identify trends, reduce failures, and maximize successful outcomes. However, in healthcare those “outcomes” are representative of patients’ wellness, making them that much more meaningful. How can big data be defined in healthcare? Jennifer Bresnick writes for, bringing some clarity to the buzzword:

“At its core, big data is any data set that combines two or more sources to generate an insight unavailable from just a single stream of information. For example, some providers are merging historical patient data with real-time feeds of vital signs or lab results from their EHRs, providing a richer prediction of what might happen to a patient based on his or her past events and current condition. Big data analytics is the foundation for many of the industry’s most promising and innovative care strategies.”


Big data is a lot for any health organization to wrap its strategies around, but the benefits are worth pursuing. The promise of big data includes progress in two areas that could give providers worthwhile advantage: patient empowerment and provider insight. Health is driven by data, and big data could make the production of patient wellness more efficient and effective overall. Specifically, it brings forth benefits such as:

Proactive care. If providers have access to widespread health information regarding each patient, rather than just pinpoints of medical data from discrete patient visits, they have a lot more insight into health situations. This overarching vision enables providers and patients to detect health issues in early stages, making way for preventative care and optimal outcomes.

Personalized care. Big data helps providers note the specifics related to each patient and their unique wellness journey. The more data providers have available, the more inferences they can make based on a patient’s unique trends to identify what may trigger health issues and what may best relieve them.

Population health. Zooming out from the possibilities of personalized care, big data has the potential to make a big-picture difference, too. The magnitude of data collected by smartphones, wearables, and traditional patient-doctor interactions gives health professionals the ability to observe the tendencies of large groups, allowing them to decipher what medical issues are most prevalent, what the causes might be, and what solutions are most promising. As Bernard Marr writes for Forbes: “ If you want to find out how big data is helping to make the world a better place, there’s no better example than the uses being found for it in healthcare.” Marr goes on to point out:

“Big data is also helping in the fight against the spread of epidemics. In Africa, mobile phone location data is proving highly valuable in efforts to track population movements, which helps to predict the spread of the Ebola virus. This gives insight into the best areas to provide treatment centers and allows movement restrictions to be put in place when necessary.”


The distribution of big data is innovative and relatively new – and like with anything of great complexity, there are challenges. Lee Dudka summarizes the intricacies of data in healthcare for HIT Consultant:

“Data grows more complex daily, both in sources and formats. It comes from lab and imaging results, pharmacies, ‘minute-clinics’ – besides data more traditionally found in physicians’ offices, hospitals, and public clinics. It is structured and unstructured, so it’s viewable in familiar table (or structured) formats, or as text (unstructured) notes that appear as lengthy, even garbled narratives, hard to use for data analytics.”

To handle the influx of this kind of data, interoperability and accuracy are imperative. The major challenges that organizations face in achieving this include:

Complexity. While the complexity of data reflects its rich value, it also poses a problem for providers. Errors in data can easily translate to errors in patient care. Also, the volume of data can easily be mismanaged, leaving some data overlooked and providers working with incomplete knowledge, resulting in less than ideal outcomes or missed opportunities for preventative care or discovery of health trends.

Security. Similar to anything healthcare related, the data that is being dealt with is sensitive. In order to use, interpret, and share big data with confidence, organizations need to have robust security measures in place. Big data can be extremely advantageous in the right hands, but it could be detrimental in the wrong ones.  An article from Forbes, titled “How Big Data is Changing Healthcare,” points out:

“Some experts, such as Dr. Leslie Saxon of the University of Southern Carolina Center for Body Computing, have called for the establishment of an international organization in the style of the UN, to regulate privacy and security issues relating to health data.”

Despite the concerns that coincide with the use of big data, its promise is clear. As more and more data becomes available and relevant to provider success, it will be necessary for organizations to innovate and strategically decide how to make big data work for them – and that will include addressing its challenges. Health leaders should continue to focus on strengthening privacy and security to hopefully reduce the risky nature of sensitive data and capitalize on its ability to influence health outcomes, both for individuals and populations.

Reference Articles:

1. “Big data and the future of healthcare” Computerworld. December 3 2015.

2. “5 Key Roadblocks to Data-Driven Healthcare” HIT Consultant. November 18 2015.

3. “How Big Data Is Changing Healthcare” Forbes. April 21 2015.

4. “Big Data in Healthcare Made Simple: Where It Stands Today and Where It’s Going” Health Catalyst.  2015.

5. “Decoding the Top 10 Buzzwords of Healthcare Big Data Analytics” Health IT Analytics. November 16 2015.