Big data is changing the way the world does business. It continues to streamline service provision in everything – from sales to financial services, law, accounting, medicine and health care – through faster and faster dissemination of information.

The basis of medical research has always been to collect and analyse data – who gets sick, why, where and how – then to use that information to treat illness and find cures for disease.

In the age of digital technology and big data, the quality and quantity of medical data being produced is unprecedented. However, unlike in the past, where vast amounts of data were siloed in doctors’ offices, hospitals and clinics, big data can store that information on one platform, and the ramifications for healthcare outcomes and cost savings are immense.

Rapid answers from a range of sources

Big data applies analytics and algorithm technology to disseminate available information as quickly and efficiently as possible. Machine learning capabilities and pattern recognition technology have been improving apace over the past decade, and the healthcare sector is increasingly using the information to diagnose and treat things such as early stage diseases.

Additionally, smartphones and devices such as Fitbit and other wearable sensors help people track their fitness and health progress and impartially record the data. This is then incorporated with information garnered from areas such as medical insurance records, and even social media, to create the most comprehensive patient profile possible.

Artificial intelligence and the internet of things (IoT) are two rapidly advancing technologies that are also using big data to analyse huge amounts of information. For healthcare professionals, this means synthesising patient information to make the best decisions based on predictive modelling. This not only tracks and monitors physical fitness and mental wellbeing, it can also be used for proactive and preventative solutions.

A rapidly changing healthcare landscape

Predictive analytics and machine learning are already transforming health care in the areas of:

  • Electronic health records.
  • Real-time alerts.
  • Telemedicine.

Bid data features most prominently in the healthcare sector through its application to electronic health records (EHRs).

As information is increasingly stored digitally, patients around the world are in the process of getting their own digital record that includes everything from demographics, family medical history, allergies to test results.

While debates about privacy rage on, the records are generally kept in one electronic file. The result for doctors is that they can make changes without paperwork and without worrying about replicating information. EHRs will also remind doctors when a patient should get a new lab test or track prescriptions. Hospitals globally are in the process of fully implementing EHRs.

Real-time alerts let hospitals and healthcare professionals analyse comprehensive data immediately, using clinical decision support (CDS) software before making decisions.

Telemedicine, or the provision of clinical services to remote areas using technology, is a boom area of health care, as videoconference, smartphone, wireless device and wearable products and services continue to improve in leaps and bounds. Big data is playing an essential role in the continual fine-tuning of these services and their contribution to successful healthcare outcomes.

Crystal-ball gazing

Like every other sector of the global economy, it’s near impossible to measure the potential for big data to improve healthcare services. For example, the rapid dissemination of vital data could literally mean the difference between life and death for trauma patients, or for those suffering from a disease or infection.

In the future, more advanced wearables will collect patients’ health data continuously, and send this data to the cloud. The speed of data delivery will increase to many times its current rate of data transfer. For example, a wearable could alert a doctor to a patient’s spike in blood pressure so the doctor can take action to treat it immediately.

Healthcare providers are already working on solutions where GPS-enabled trackers will monitor a patient’s medication use, using data analytics technology as a base.

Better outcomes, trillions in savings

Big data is already transforming the healthcare sector. Stakeholders who are committed to innovation can still reap the rewards of early mover advantage in this burgeoning field, as better and faster diagnosis and delivery services constantly come on the market.

Big data will continue to drive superior patient outcomes. It also has the potential to save the global economy trillions of dollars through fewer hospital visits, early disease detection and a better understanding of general health and wellbeing using wearables such as Fitbits.