Why Health Data Is a Big Data Challenge

There's no shortage of health data, and it's growing at a rapid clip, but experts in the field cite challenges around making that information useful, readable and relevant to the physicians and patients who need it most.

WASHINGTON — In many ways, the challenges of improving healthcare through technology revolve around data.

It's a boom time for health IT startups that have been developing mobile devices and tools to collect more data about patients' adherence to treatment plans, monitor anything from chronic conditions to caloric intake, and any number of other applications.

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At their core, those businesses launched with the vision that more data can address public health issues, reduce the costs of care, improve patient outcomes — or all of the above.

However, with the sharp rise in the volume of health data being created — growing at an annual rate of 40 percent, according to research firm IDC — there emerges the familiar big data challenge of having too much of a good and useful thing. How do you glean insights from these ballooning data sets?

Big Data's Promise Is in Data Visualization

"Healthcare has so much promise around this," Christine Carmichael, the head of marketing, government and education at Tableau Software, said at this week's Health Datapalooza, a conference focused on improving healthcare through data-driven technologies.

Carmichael's approach: Offer slick visual overlays onto the datasets that can present them with an appropriate level of context, such that nontechnical workers can quickly grasp their import "without heavy reliance on IT resources."

She adds: "The key to making sense of all of this big data is data visualization. It's not looking at data in rows and columns and spreadsheets. It's looking at data visually."

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Tableau is one of several firms offering software packages to help healthcare professionals and other industries derive meaningful information from their datasets, a field that encompasses novel visualizations, data mining and analytics.

There's no larger single holder of health data than the federal government, where agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention preside over massive stores of health-related datasets. Increasingly, those agencies are turning that information over to the public, bringing it online in a searchable, machine-readable format in the hopes that researchers and developers will be able to mine the datasets for new insights and to build applications on top of it.

Hard to Get Health Data in Right Hands

For the companies that gather their own data in the field, offering technologies such as sensors that relay health information from patients or sending SMS messages to communicate with patients, the collection and use of data can pose other challenges.

One of those is physician buy-in. It's no secret that there's a wide spectrum within the ranks of care providers in the level of acceptance of new technologies. This creates an adoption challenge for health IT firms.

Take Sense Health, a firm catering to harried care providers. Sense Health offers automated tools to help them put together a plan of care and follow-up with patients via text message, with the aim of carrying on an ongoing, two-way dialogue that would boost patients' adherence to their health regimen.

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Through those messages, Sense Health generates volumes of data points about individual interactions with a patient. The real utility of the service, though, comes in packaging that information in such a way that it can help physicians evaluate and potentially adjust their treatment plans, according to Stan Berkow, founder and CEO of the startup.

"It's part of our job with the data we're collecting to give them the insights they need to utilize it," Berkow said, adding that data capture isn't about throwing data at physicians so they can make sense of it. "It's an effort for us to make sense of that and deliver them the insights … Not that that's the easiest thing to do, but I think that full package needs to come with any product or technology coming out."

Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.

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