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Dave Bennett

Because the data capacity for flash drives and secure digital memory card storage increased immensely over the past two decades, mobile phones have gone from simple handsets used for text messaging, phone calls, and the occasional game of Snake, to sophisticated devices that support high-fidelity music libraries, high-definition videos, high-resolution photos and elaborate video games.

Consumer expectation for data storage has also grown over those two decades. The rapid development of new technology—combined with a dramatic reduction in the cost of data storage—has brought to all sectors the possibilities of connection and communication. For healthcare, a wealth of data has revolutionized the way we approach patient care, ushering in an era in which the entire care cycle is fueled by analytics and decision support that improves overall quality and makes the lives of physicians easier.

Patient-as-consumer demands and expectations

The demand for increased data storage has been the driving force behind this rapid expanse of data technology, creating a positive developmental feedback loop. As the capacity for data has increased, so has the consumer appetite for it; consumers demanded greater and more practical data, which opened up previously unexplored avenues for the development of data-driven services. Because patients are also users of other rapidly expanding technologies, the healthcare industry’s goal is to keep up with the expectation for a robust user experience. 

For most industries, including the retail and financial industries, big data is now a tool used to predict consumer trends and provide service improvements, like increasingly targeted advertising, which uses things like social media “likes” and app activity to deliver a personalized experience directly to the individual.

Similarly, the healthcare industry is uniquely positioned to use the increasing visibility of personal data for practical healthcare and treatment solutions. 

Healthcare’s data boom

The increase in data storage capacity has enabled the leveraging of rich data sets of patient information. It started with the adoption of EHRs and EMRs—patient records that were seldom larger than a few megabytes of text and personal health information—and it continued with the need to incorporate things like images from X-rays or CT scans, which increased the need for, and potential applications of, granular patient information.

Today, the average patient generates close to 80 megabytes of data each year, including clinical and financial information, according to a May 2017 article by the New England Journal of Medicine. The next evolution of this technology will include a massive expansion in what can be stored and, in turn, how patient data can be leveraged.

How healthcare is expanding big data solutions

The amount of viable and useful data that can be stored and utilized for an individual patient has gone from megabytes into the realm of terabytes. From a practical standpoint, this has created new and unexpected challenges for clinical data storage—challenges being met by new innovations in cloud-based and on-site data storage solutions.

For example, cloud-based data solutions allow for reduced and flexible infrastructure costs, increased speed and agility, and increased scalability and availability of data. Many cloud providers also offer infrastructure that is compliant with various regulations and certifications, such as HIPAA and HITRUST.

With these new challenges, however, has also come enormous opportunity. The benefits to patients and consumers from this collection of data has opened the door to avenues of care never thought possible.

Some of the technology solutions gained from this increase in data capacity include:

– The development and empowerment of outpatient monitoring through in-home care and off-site patient communication.

– Real-time patient-to-provider updates and communication strengthened by the speed and security of digitized health records over traditional paper records.

– The incredible developments in machine learning as a result of the utilization of anonymized patient images and video data.

Population health management that can aggregate vast data sets to identify at-risk patients for proactive intervention.

– The potential for precision medicine enabled by genomic mapping of patient information.

This is just a handful of technology utilizing patient data that is already being used by healthcare organizations globally. Some of these technologies are in their third or fourth generation, others are only just emerging, and their ongoing development is yielding promising new possibilities.

Just as mobile phones evolved into today’s smartphones, both old and emerging technology continues to get better, more precise and more meaningful. In the early 1990s, as the data boom was only beginning, few could have imagined what would be possible today. Likewise, even with a far greater understanding of the reach and capabilities of big data, few today can likely imagine what will be possible tomorrow.