Collecting large quantities of information is nothing new and something organizations have done for a long time. It is however only in recent years the term big data has emerged and reached the hype of today. The creation of large information streams is closely related to the current digitization of society, where more and more devices are being connected to one another and to the cloud. The latter concept is referred to as the Internet of Things. Every device produces data that can be analyzed and used to streamline a process, either among us as humans or among machines. What can large quantities of information and connected devices amount to when it comes to health, medical information and care work?
We create more data today than ever before. Everything we do on our connected devices; computers, phones, tablets and smart watches, creates data. Thus, in the digitized society of today, the amount of data has increased exponentially. Put in relation, the total amount of data created between the beginning of time and the year 2000, is the same amount that is created every few minutes today. Larger quantities of data can, with the right processing, result in more correct analyzes and this is where the value of big data is. Pure data per se is nothing more than information and without analytics, it is often insignificant; it is the analysis that creates knowledge.
Internet of Things
The Internet of Things (IoT); the network of connected devices with electronics and sensors that exchange information with each other and us, is a concept that is closely related to big data, as every single connected device produces information.
According to Gartner, there will be 25 billion devices connected to IoT in five years. A few examples of the most common devices of today are smartphones, tablets and “wearables”, but through the digitization process that society is going through, more and more things are becoming “smart”. It can for instance be smart homes where the TV, coffee machine, washing machine, lamps, sound system or the car are connected and exchanging information with each other and the external world.
When it comes to healthcare, devices that generates data about an individual’s health may have great benefits. A large number people use applications or meters privately to track their own activity and health. This could be parameters like daily movement, sleep, pulse and weight. The collected information is stored which creates a historical overview that shows trends and changes over time. Deloitte reports that the consumer use of technology for measuring their health condition has grown from 17 to 28 percent in two years.
Apart from the healthy individuals keeping healthy, the technology has the most beneficial effect to those who actually need the information to feel better in everyday life. Among chronically ill, 62 percent shared the collected information with their caregiver. The information can in turn lead to the possibility of a better treatment decision and a more personized care.
If healthcare data is stored on a common platform, the health condition of millions of patients can be analyzed simultaneously, which leads to the possibility of identifying patterns and trends on a larger scale. A connected healthcare gives us the opportunity of a more individualized treatment, at the same time as diseases and conditions can be examined on a national scale.
In a large study executed in Denmark, researchers followed 6.2 million Danes under 15 years with the ambition to predict and prevent disease progression. By using advanced data programs to analyze the information from national patient records, where all hospital visits and diagnoses in Denmark is registered, the researchers received thousands of different scenarios of how diseases can be connected to each other. The study shows a strong correlation between the disease gout and cardiovascular disease, which Sveriges Radio gives example on in their article about the study:
“This means that if a patient has joint pain due to gout, the doctor should not only prescribe pain killers, which is common today, but perhaps blood thinners also to prevent a possible heart attack” (Translated from Swedish)
In a larger perspective, large quantities of information and analytical models could be used to create an overview of the public health, and in turn lead to the possibility of studying trends in the general health. Here, potential health problems in the society could be identified before they break out on a larger scale. One example is the organization Flowminder that maps out human movement in disaster areas via anonymized mobile data to create models and predict the spread of contagious diseases.
Decision support and improved diagnosis
Large amounts of data create a lot of information, and large quantities of information could lead to more precise diagnoses. The healthcare sector is an area that, from an informatics perspective, is changing quickly and according to IBM, the medical information is doubling every five years. This makes it hard for healthcare staffs to stay updated on the latest literature, studies and guidelines; according to Wired, it would take at least 160 hours of reading a week, which is equivalent to 4 full time jobs. An impossible task. This is where big data analytics comes in to the picture; summarized information, collected from thousands of quality assured sources, could work as decision support for doctors.
Through a database, healthcare staff can quickly make a comparison of how different treatments has worked for other patients with similar symptoms and medical history and by this be more sure in the decision of a new or changed treatment.
One example is IBM’s Watson; a cognitive computer system that can be used as decision support in healthcare. Watson is Artificial Intelligence (AI) and processes information similar to a human; Watson understands natural human language, generates hypotheses based on evidence and most importantly; it learns from its mistakes. Watson can ingest and process large quantities of information and deliver a qualitative answer. The following quote from Wired describes the concept:
“Watson’s ingestion of more than 600,000 pieces of medical evidence, more than two million pages from medical journals and the further ability to search through up to 1,5 million patient records for further information gives it a breadth of knowledge no human doctor can match”
Watson’s precentral level of successful lung cancer diagnosis is, according to Wired’s article, 90 percent, while the human doctor’s is at about 50 percent. This does not mean that Watson or any other technology will replace the human touch at the point of care, but rather work as support to help healthcare staff in decision making at the same time streamline the care work.
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