Big data in health care

How three organizations are using big data to improve patient care and more

By Anne-Lindsay Beall, Insights Editor

This fact may be a hard pill for US taxpayers to swallow, but the top 10 drugs currently given to Medicare patients only benefit 21 percent of the people who take them. That’s 79 percent waste.

Likewise, only five of 10,000 women in their 50’s who receive annual mammography screenings for 10 years will avoid a breast cancer death. Not only that, but 6,000 of those women will be called back for a false positive.

These are examples of homogenized health care or “imprecision medicine” as Eric Topol, MD and author said in his keynote at the SAS Health Analytics Virtual Forum. It’s the assumption that standard treatments should be applied uniformly, and the downside isn’t just waste – it’s a matter of life and death.

As Topol points out, we have tools and information that we’ve never had before – we can digitize and quantify almost every aspect of human beings. Just as Google maps have a satellite view, a traffic view, a street view -- we can now create a “Google medical map” of a human being from external features to anatomy (by scans) to physiology (by sensors), to DNA, RNA and chemical composition. “We can quantify the environment, which we could never do before – now it’s obtainable information,” says Topol.

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Big data is good to have, but it’s meaningless if you can’t put it into action.

Tom Henry, VP of Knowledge Solutions, Express Scripts

Organizations using big data in health care

Topol’s description shows the enormous potential in using big data to individualize medical treatment – not only saving and improving lives, but delivering better medical care with improved processes, reduced waste and so much more.

While health care has been slow to take advantage of big data, here are three organizations leading the way:

Dignity Health, one of the largest health systems in the US, is working to develop a cloud-based, big data platform powered by a library of clinical, social and behavioral analytics. Over time, the platform will connect and share data across the system’s 39 hospitals and more than 9,000 affiliated providers. Here are just a few of the opportunities they see for using big data (read more in the blog post: A healthy case for cloud analytics):

  • Plan care for individuals and populations, including predictive disease management.
  • Define and apply best practices to reduce readmission rates.
  • Predict the risk of sepsis or kidney failure, and intervene early to reduce negative outcomes.
  • Better manage pharmacy costs and outcomes.
  • Create tools to improve each patient’s experience.

Express Scripts handles millions of prescriptions annually through home delivery and retail pharmacies. Tom Henry, Vice President of Knowledge Solutions for Express Scripts, leads a group that’s using high-powered analytics to crunch big data. They’re analyzing individual patients so effectively, they’ll soon be able to alert health care workers to serious side effects before a medication is prescribed.

This could have profoundly positive consequences for health:

  • A health care provider would know before writing a prescription for painkillers whether the patient is at high-risk to become dependent. A different treatment plan or more careful monitoring could be selected.
  • Prescription-filling behaviors, psychosocial information and other medical data could point to the development of a chronic illness – or one that hasn’t yet been properly diagnosed.
  • Adherence to medication regimens post-hospitalization can predict the potential for re-admittance within 90 days. Providers could take action to avoid the re-admittance.

"Through our innovative predictive models, we make it more likely to avoid unnecessary treatment costs and improve patient outcomes,” says Henry. “Big data is good to have, but it’s meaningless if you can’t put it into action. That’s what we do. By being proactive, we’re driving better decisions and healthier outcomes.”

United Healthcare, the largest health insurer in the US, is processing data inside a Hadoop big data framework using big data and advanced analytics to give them a 360-degree view of each of its 85 million members. They’re using big data and advanced analytics for clinical improvements, financial analysis and fraud and waste monitoring.

“We have data that touches every aspect of the healthcare industry: member, claims, hospital, provider, clinical, operational and financial – and we use that data to get to root-causes of problems quickly, build innovative solutions and actively adapt to the changing healthcare landscape,” says Ravi Shanbhag, United Healthcare’s director of data science, solutions and strategy.

Other opportunities for big data in health care:

  • Episode analytics. The move to value-based payments is well underway and accelerating. The shift is putting unprecedented pressure on health care providers to better manage the cost and quality of care they deliver. Who will have a much better shot of success? Organizations that use big data to understand how well they’re performing, where they have opportunities to improve and their capacity to redesign care delivery.
  • Population health analytics. The promise of big data and analytics in managing population health is one of the most hyped yet least understood opportunities in health care today.
  • Virtual care and wearable health care technologies. Technology is helping providers drive virtual care initiatives to increase quality of care and provide patients with more access, but there is the question: How secure is the ecosystem in which more and more personal health information is being exposed?
  • Project Data Sphere. SAS is playing a key role in the development of industry-wide pharmaceutical data transparency. The goal is a secure, globally accessible data and analysis environment where multiple organizations can share anonymized clinical trial information. This would help scientists learn from research more quickly, and thus speed improvements in care.

As you can see, the promise of big data in health care is staggering -- and with early adopters like Dignity Health, Express Scripts, United Healthcare and others leading the way, there’s hope that we’ll realize that promise sooner than you think.


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