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Big data will enhance healthcare, but to whose benefit?

25/11/2014 by Sharon Shahzad


Big-data technology will eventually underpin the healthcare system, though to what extent and what that means to patients are questions needing to be asked. 

Healthcare providers handle an inordinate amount of sensitive data, and keeping it all under control must be a logistical nightmare. Enter big-data technology with the promise "this won't hurt." Besides being painless, big-data proponents claim improved patient care and reduced costs. And the reduced costs are substantial -- according to a 2011 McKinsey report: "If US healthcare were to use big data creatively and effectively to drive efficiency and quality, the sector could create more than $300 billion in value every year."

The "what if"

However, like any complex subject dealing with sensitive issues there's always a "what if." Those concerned about the rush to big-data technology agree the move will be beneficial. Their contention: the healthcare field is unlike any other industry, patient privacy and data security must supercede all other concerns. Having patient data stolen is significantly more serious than, for example, a filched credit-card number. The credit-card number can be replaced, not so with a patient's health record.

Rather than get caught up in the debate, one organization, the Institute for Health Technology Transformation (iHT2), is working to bridge the chasm. In the paper Transforming Health Care Through Big Data, iHT2 looks at the challenges facing the merger of healthcare and big-data technology. (Note: The iHT2 report was written in 2013, but the issues cited by the paper are still relevant.)

The paper starts out by offering a high-level view of big data: "A report delivered to the U.S. Congress in August 2012 defines big data as a term that describes large volumes of high velocity, complex, and variable data that require advanced techniques and technologies to enable the capture, storage, distribution, management, and analysis of the information."

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