Big Data in Healthcare: Hype or Hope?

The Learning Clinic unveils new White Paper outlining impact of Big Data on healthcare organisations

The use of ‘Big Data’ in the healthcare sector marks ‘nothing less than a new frontier in human endeavour’, according to England’s former chief medical officer.

Writing the foreword on a new White Paper published by The Learning Clinic, entitled Big Data in Healthcare: Hype or Hope, Sir Liam Donaldson highlights the importance of so-called Big Data in helping to reduce instances of harm among patients, and to improve care practices.

Research has already told us a great deal, but the opportunity to bring together health data with sources of information from many unrelated areas opens new doors

He states: “Every health system in the world is struggling to cope with the increased burden of chronic diseases like diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and stroke and every health minister in the world would like to prevent, or at least postpone, the onset of these diseases.

“One of the keys to doing this is to gain a greater understanding of people’s behaviour and the factors to influence it.

“Research has already told us a great deal about this, but the opportunity to bring together health data with sources of information from many unrelated areas opens new doors.

“It may take us closer to the means to share the behaviour patterns of whole populations towards the ultimate goal of enabling tens of millions of people to achieve a better state of health and sustain it for most of their life.

“Through this White Paper, The Learning Clinic is signalling its intention to move the debate on Big Data, particularly in the field of health and healthcare, on from a diffuse exploration of the subject to practical ideas and action that will benefit patients. It is nothing less than a new frontier in human endeavour.”

He goes on to highlight the positive impact of digital data-gathering solutions such as vital signs monitoring systems.

He says: “If I were to pile, on a table, 30 sets of hospital case notes, each containing a set of charts with manual readings of patients’ vital signs on different days and at different times, I am confident of three things. Firstly, that no-one involved in day-to-day clinical care would have the time or inclination to look through the record to try to see a pattern in the quality of care being delivered. Secondly, such a pattern would be very difficult to discern, even if it was present. And, thirdly, some essential data would be missing.

In order to improve, the NHS – like any organisation – needs to learn. In order to learn, it needs to measure its current performance

“On the last of these, there is a telling point about human infalability. Among the regular observations recorded on patients – the vital signs – is the frequency at which they breathe in and out – the respiratory rate. Changes in this measure can be a strong indicator that a patient’s condition is worsening. Yet, in traditional nursing observations, this vital sign is often missed out. Crucially, it takes time to do and nurses are almost always operating under extreme time pressures.”

Automated monitoring of vital signs involves the device obliging the nurse, for example, to take and record a respiratory rate. It will not allow him or her to move onto the next item until a plausible reading has been entered, so it cannot be missed out due to pressure of time. Also a wildly-high or low reading will prompt an ‘are you sure’ check, reducing another source of error that could harm the patient.

Widespread adoption of this technology could help to reduce illness and mortality, Sir Liam adds.

“I undertook research to examine the causes of patient safety-related deaths in NHS hospitals in England. I analysed 2,000 individual reports made by NHS staff because they perceived that a patient’s death was associated with unsafe care. I found that an entire third of these deaths involved mismanagement of those acutely-ill patients whose condition was deteriorating. The precise underlying circumstances varied, but many involved failure to take necessary observations, missing out observations, and not noticing, or acting on, worsening of vital signs.

“New opportunities to improve the quality and safety of care are just one of the health aspects of Big Data highlighted in this White Paper.

The 11-page document states that: “In order to improve, the NHS – like any organisation – needs to learn. In order to learn, it needs to measure its current performance.

“The emergence of Big Data in healthcare offers an opportunity to measure, learn and improve on an unprecedented scale.”

Possibly the most-interesting, and challenging, aspect about Big Data, according to the paper, is its variety, with sources that now include social networking, web server logs, traffic flor sensors, satellite imaging, banking transactions, scans of documents, and so on.

The emergence of Big Data in healthcare offers an opportunity to measure, learn and improve on an unprecedented scale

The report goes on to outline the impact of Big Data in various market sectors, including agriculture, manufacturing and retail, and how the healthcare sector can learn from their experiences.

It states that research from Markets and Markets shows the healthcare analytics market is predicted to grow 27% a year, from $5.8billion in 2015 to $18.7billion in 2020.

“With the race for raw material creating a gold rush of sorts, the generation of, and access to, data is increasing exponentially, from electronic health records to social platforms, health insurance claim records, environmental facts and genomic markets. And the current rush is just the beginning.”

To read the full White Paper, click here.

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