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Why big data comes with big headaches for the healthcare sector

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Professor Michael Barrett

Professor Michael Barrett

Professor Stefan Scholtes

Professor Stefan Scholtes

“Big Data” is a phrase that seems to get many people excited these days. The potential is clearly so enormous that society seems to naturally believe it is the answer to everything. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that people need to learn that while “big data” seems to be a magic word, it’s not a magic wand.

Healthcare seems to be one area where the possibilities are endless, but there are many issues that should make us pause. The first one is simply how we might begin to use big data in this landscape, and we could come at it from two angles. We could, for instance, take this huge volume of data and say: “Wow, what can we do with all this?” Alternatively, we could say: “What are the specific issues within healthcare and how can we use big data to fix them?”

The second question would seem to be a much more targeted and efficient starting point. Too much data is unwieldy and chaotic, particularly when there isn’t even system integration in healthcare. For example, at the moment a patient goes to the GP, who writes a letter to the hospital staff, who then write back. But the GP can’t see the hospital records and the hospital staff can’t see the doctor’s. All the data in the world can’t be applied successfully without system integration.

One of the first steps, therefore, is to define exactly what big data within the healthcare sector actually is. One definition is around size – there are millions of patients with millions of records – and the other aspect is structure, and whether this is in place before you start to assess the data, or vice versa.

Then we have another challenge: you know the data is there, but how do you go about accessing it? For a start, are we sure we know who owns it? The patient? The doctor? The hospital? The healthcare provider? What are the privacy and confidentiality issues around it? The rise of big data will bring other players into the healthcare eco system – IT companies and pharma companies who are desperate to get into something other than pills – and then governance of these changes becomes all-important. There are bound to be major partnerships involving tech giants – HP or IBM for example – but how will they work? Big data is exciting because it has the potential to encompass everything – but who’s then going to stop a huge IT company becoming the prime player in the ecosystem? That is the last thing the sector needs.

However the UK embraces this inevitable change, the NHS has to be on board; it has to be at the heart of any partnerships that keep primary care, secondary care and social care at the forefront and, crucially, able to capture and share information between organisation to maintain consistent care.

In working out where to go next, it is important to examine the trends in healthcare and why some are attracting so much investor attention. There are countless data-led opportunities for investors to get involved – cloud-based systems, mobile phone apps, social media, wellness programmes, for example – which should be contributing to bringing health service costs down, but we need to harness the data they produce to give a proper service to the patient, not just in hospitals but in the wider health ecosystems, too. We should also be asking if data analytics is even a core competence in healthcare? The answer is probably not – at least for the moment.

Data can bring such enormous opportunities, but they’re not necessarily all great, at least for now. The main issue is that data, even on this scale – especially on this scale – is of little use on its own. It needs to turn into information. But if you use appropriate analytics to do that, you can pull out the information, and with information you can make decisions to benefit patients, their families and the healthcare staff who look after them.