Here at Ghostery, we strive to give everyone a basic understanding that, for better or worse, their data is being collected by companies and used in some way. It is then up to personal preference whether you choose to comply with or contest these tactics. In the world of data collection, the healthcare industry is no exception. Last week we briefly summarized the overarching benefits and dangers of healthcare data collection. Now we’ll be taking a more in-depth look at the arguments for each side, starting with the benefits.
Research, Symptoms, and Personalization
Perhaps the most easily seen benefit of Big Data in healthcare is the value it brings to research and the corresponding insights that can be drawn from the data. These insights allow for personalization, consistency of care, and reduce the lack of data to relate symptoms between patients. SaM Solutions, an IT-services and software solutions provider, may summarize this best by saying, “Data collection in healthcare allows health systems to create holistic views of patients, personalize treatments, advance treatment methods, improve communication between doctors and patients, and enhance health outcomes.” Prior to shared electronic databases, most medical records were isolated to the facility where a patient visited. The data about each patient was filed away and likely unused for anything beyond that patient’s care. From a privacy perspective, this seems like a good thing, which we’ll cover in next week’s post about the dangers of collecting health data. However, from the research and development perspective, preventing information from being communicated between doctors, healthcare facilities, and medical researchers is detrimental to potential enhancements in the industry. Giving doctors and other healthcare providers a holistic view of a patient’s health status increases their ability to tailor treatment plans and monitor changes, which can lead to more positive outcomes.
Predictive Capabilities and Epidemic Prevention
Following a similar vein, collecting data of this kind also improves predictive capabilities and epidemic prevention. For example, if a man in Florida is experiencing symptoms that seem unrelated, they may be written off as unconnected and treated individually. However, with the help of Big Data, doctors are able to see that other patients have presented with the same seemingly unrelated symptoms in other areas. After further examination, the pattern reveals anywhere from a rare disease to a growing epidemic. This is the power of having aggregate data. Connected health services company, Trapollo, utilizes this data-driven idea, pointing out that, “Aggregate data can help providers identify trends and risk indicators across population groups by analyzing common traits across anonymized data sets. By understanding correlations between holistic patient data and various conditions, physicians can better predict at-risk patients, who can then be treated sooner, even potentially avoiding some conditions altogether.” Similarly, but on a more individual level, SaM Solutions states, “By using a scope of data from digital medical records, doctors can establish a link between fundamentally different symptoms, give an accurate diagnosis and provide adequate treatment.” This makes a strong case for healthcare data collection having a positive impact on society as a whole.
Another argument, actually seen as both a benefit and a danger depending on your view, is the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) in the industry. AI has the ability to identify key trends that may otherwise be overlooked and improve both operational and patient-care efforts. Perhaps the most notable use case is seen in the partnerships Google has made. In the past year, Google has partnered with both the Mayo Clinic and Ascension, the nation’s second-largest health system. While there is certainly controversy surrounding Google’s own business model and their handling of sensitive data, if conducted properly, these relationships could produce AI systems that function far beyond current capabilities. In the announcement of their partnership, Gianrico Farrugia, M.D., president and CEO of Mayo Clinic, stated “[The partnership] will empower us to solve some of the most complex medical problems; better anticipate the needs of people we serve; and meet them when, where and how they need us. We will share our knowledge and expertise globally while caring for people locally and always do it with a human touch.” Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, added, “By pairing the Mayo Clinic’s world-class clinical expertise with our capabilities in AI and cloud computing, we have an extraordinary opportunity to develop services that will significantly improve lives.” Similar comments were made when information came out about Google’s partnership with Ascension, also known as Project Nightingale. There is a lot of skepticism about Google’s true intentions with this new data, but they aren’t the only players in the game of AI. Other companies, such as IBM, also see the potential of medical artificial intelligence.
Lastly, efficient use of Big Data could also significantly reduce the cost of healthcare on both a national and individual level. A study published in the National Library of Medicine found that “When big data is synthesized and analyzed… healthcare providers and other stakeholders in the healthcare delivery system can develop more thorough and insightful diagnoses and treatments, resulting, one would expect, in higher quality care at lower costs and in better outcomes overall.” In regards to lowering costs, the study refers more specifically to an estimate by McKinsey, “that big data analytics can enable more than $300 billion in savings per year in U.S. healthcare.” On a personal level, improving the accuracy of diagnosis can significantly reduce the costs associated with repeated physician visits and potentially unnecessary medications. According to Bloomberg, the average American spends $1,200 on prescription drugs per year. Many of these prescriptions may be necessary; however, it is possible that hidden patterns, waiting to be revealed by Big Data, could reduce this number.
It’s clear that data collection brings substantial benefits to the table when it comes to healthcare. With that being said, the question becomes, do the benefits outweigh the costs? Don’t commit to an opinion just yet; come back next week as we take a closer look at the dangers that can also be presented by this data.