Health Information Exchange Featured Article

September 25, 2012

Big Data and its Analysis Revolutionizing Healthcare

Back in the day, medical records were kept in paper files, and that was fine because the most doctors needed to know could be contained in the folder. Okay, so some were spilling out forms and sheets, others so bulging they were fastened with rubber bands. But today with information about genes and mutations and biotechnology exploding, the only way to keep track of it all and analyze it, is electronically.

But even this way is meeting with challenges as, the healthcare industry, which has long trailed other industries in its use of analytics, develops into a “seedbed for research on advanced analytics, including topics such as natural language processing, artificial intelligence, and genomics,” according to Scott Mace.

As Derrick Harris noted, “New types of data analysis are the key to helping” healthcare take the field to the next level.

I first began hearing the words “big data” when talking to a friend at IBM about an exciting new project, based on Watson, the genius computer who beat everyone on Jeopardy, and a partnership with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to build a tool for sifting through the hospital’s massive amounts of research data to find cancer cures.

Today’s cancer researchers are discovering that the answer to this dreaded disease lies not in the organs in which it develops but in the mutations in cells that cause it, with some of the same mutations seen in very different cancers, all hopefully leading to new treatments and cures. 

But, even one human genome is packed with at least four million gene switches that all have to be studied, creating warehouses of data that must be sorted through, and mind-crunching data analytics to do it. As Mace noted, “the amount of data being collected for analysis is exploding.”

Some organizations are studying pathology information from colon cancer patients and lung cancer patients, currently “importing results from 60 different tests,” Mace revealed.

Hadoop, a software framework that manages really big data and is what “greases the gears of the cloud, keeping the data flowing for online giants like Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Twitter,” according to Dave Einstein, can be used to quickly search a healthcare company’s data center for a patient’s complete medical history, including X-rays and MRI scans.

And we’re just getting there.

“Use of big data will ease the transition to authentic data-driven healthcare, allowing healthcare professionals to improve the standard of care based on millions of cases, define needs for subpopulations, and identify and intervene for population groups at risk for poor outcomes,” Dan Riskin, MD, CEO, Health Fidelity. “To date, few healthcare professionals would claim that the promise of big data has been fulfilled.” 

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Edited by Amanda Ciccatelli