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How Big Data Is Changing Healthcare

Connected devices and improved technologies is having a profound impact

14Apr

There have been hurdles that every single industry has needed to jump in order to effectively adopt and utilize big data, but few have so many as healthcare.

Due to the justifiably strict codes of ethics and secrecy surrounding patient data, the industry that could arguably have the biggest impact from its adoption, has been forced to slowly bring it in. Many of the datasets that could potentially have the biggest impact are also still incredibly difficult to get access to.

However, all is not lost, and the industry, despite the problems, is making some of the most significant progress in the area.

One of the reasons for this has been the rise in the amount of data that we all hold on ourselves without even knowing it. For instance, did you know that you iPhone tracks the number of steps you take unless you actively turn off the feature? This kind of information is perhaps not too useful for curing a disease, but is one of the most important in terms of preventative medicine. Several wearables such as the Apple Watch and Fitbit Surge also track your heart rate constantly, show your resting heart rate, your peaks and troughs depending on the level of exercise you are undertaking.

At present this tends to be used for personal health and perhaps as a passing element in a diagnosis if you chose to get your phone out and show your doctor. However, in future they could be used as an incredibly powerful way to share relevant data with your doctor, showing your daily habits in an accurate way. For instance, in a clinical situation your heart rate will naturally rise as it is stressful and tense, so it would be almost impossible to get an accurate resting heart rate. If this can be tracked around the clock, then a doctor would have a much clearer picture of your overall health.

At an individual level this data is certainly useful for diagnostics, but if the data set is opened up, but with identifiable features removed, it would be possible to see the overall health of a population or section of a population. For instance, the western world is currently facing an obesity epidemic and in 2011-12 the US had 34.9% of its population classified as obese and ,a shocking 68.6% overweight or obese. If it were possible to see whether this was down to exercise, diet or something else through this data then finding a solution would be considerably easier.

This kind of work has begun already following a partnership between Apple and IBM. The deal, which was originally created with an enterprise focus, has also spread across to Apple's tracking of health data through their phones and watches and IBM's Watson computer. The data from Apple devices can be fed into Watson to help the computer create a huge database of health information.

John E. Kelly III, SVP for IBM's research and solutions portfolio said that, 'Our deep understanding and history in the healthcare industry will help ensure that doctors and researchers can maximize the insights available through Apple's HealthKit and ResearchKit data.' The partnership could certainly have a huge impact on how doctors and healthcare professionals search and analyze patient data moving forward, in a much more useable and cohesive way than is currently available.

For those worried that this could potentially impact on their personal privacy, the partnership is going to anonymize the data at the same time as making it useable. This is because at present 80% of all health data is unusable and unstructured, making in depth analysis almost impossible. IBM are hoping to take the data from Apple, de-identify it and store it on scalable cloud system in a structured and useable format.

This is certainly one of the most high-profile partnerships between two leading tech companies, but it sets a precedent for others in the area to do the same with non-confidential or damaging health data. Things like heart rate or steps taken during a day may seem like relatively banal datasets to have, but the truth is that there is potential to have a huge impact on preventative medicine and the general health of a population. 

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