The future of health data: managing the deluge

Medical Director, Bupa Hong Kong
21 September 2017
Health data

Health data today is often fragmented and unstructured, but the volume keeps on growing. The opportunities that health data will bring are exciting: it could allow us to understand as much about a patient as possible, as early in life as possible, meaning we can pick up warning signs of serious illnesses at an early enough stage to ensure treatment is simpler than had it been spotted later. But we need to ensure that “data is cooked with care.”

Data and analytics dangle a tantalising future in front of patients and doctors, promising improvements in diagnosis, decision making and outcomes.

Yet healthcare systems are struggling to gain insights from the mass of data that’s already being created, never mind the deluge that’s coming.

How will we make sense of a treasure trove of data while volumes increase exponentially and investment in analytics continues to soar?

We’ve pinpointed several emerging trends that could bridge the gap between expectation and execution, which has developed as a result of healthcare’s fragmented and unstructured health data.

1. The platform economy

Platforms are an interface linking healthcare providers, insurers and patients in one ecosystem. They improve information sharing, support data-driven decision making and reduce inefficiency. One example of a digital platform in healthcare is HealthTap, created by entrepreneur Ron Gutman. It offers Uber-like concierge services for patients who are tired of waiting for a doctor’s appointment and want access to medical advice immediately. Options include online symptom search and video consultations.

2. Blurring the boundaries

We can expect data to continue to blur the boundaries between healthcare and technology companies. Examples of this include various link-ups with technology that make healthcare solutions more convenient to users, such as a drive-up healthcare pilot run by UberHEALTH in Boston. Skilled care workers, driven by Uber drivers, delivered and administered flu vaccines to customers who ordered via smartphone. Another innovation promised for 2019 is Google’s smart contact lenses, which it’s claimed will monitor blood glucose in diabetics.

3. Continuous health data stream

We’re moving from episodic care where we see doctors when we’re ill or at annual check-ups, to continuous healthcare from a constant flow of patient-generated information – think smart phones, wearables, social media and other devices collecting medical data collected non-invasively. As well as revolutionising how we diagnose illness or monitor disease, this shift will revolutionise the role of clinicians – turning them into something more akin to an air traffic controller, advising customers where to touch down and access the right care.

4. Analytic systems that interrogate data

An analyst from Frost and Sullivan predicts that artificial intelligence (AI) will be at the heart of everything from population health management to digital avatars who answer patients’ specific health queries. If we can link data sources with AI, we can potentially achieve all kinds of benefits from improved diagnosis to predictions of ill-health. In one case from Japan, IBM Watson cross-referenced 20 million oncology records against a patient’s medical information and diagnosed a rare form of leukaemia in minutes – something doctors had been unable to do after months of tests. Research suggests that an algorithm for predicting heart attacks, invented by epidemiologist Stephen Weng from the University of Nottingham, could save an additional 355 lives a year if clinicians started using it today.

All this culminates in better outcomes for patients and an improved customer experience but, to paraphrase Geoffrey C Bowker, Professor in Informatics at the University of California, we need to ensure “data is cooked with care”.

That means all the experts involved in the complex data generated in healthcare have a duty to pre-process and manage it with care to avoid errors. We’ll need data to analyse a patient’s health correctly, but we must also consider how we protect patient confidentiality.

If you’ll forgive the analogy, data on its own is not the panacea for all ills. Real doctors, not avatars, will be needed to ensure any answers provided by data are the right ones.

The background is one of increasing data and analytics that push medical boundaries, but at Bupa we’re determined that patients remain firmly in the foreground. It’s that proviso which ensures we first do no harm.

Watch Sarah's full presentation on health data below:

This blog is part of the series ‘The Future of Healthcare’ where Bupa’s Chief Medical Officers from around the world, shared their views on how technology and innovation will have an impact on healthcare, deep diving in four key topics: diagnosis, treatment, data and systems of care.

Sarah Salvilla
Medical Director, Bupa Hong Kong
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