Here’s to Your Health with Big Data

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Electronic health records (EHRs) were supposed to revolutionize healthcare, saving up to up to $81 billion a year through innovative new efficiencies and the collection of massive amounts of data that could be used to help prevent as well as cure diseases.

Well, it hasn’t happened.  Writing in Computerworld, Lucas Mearian reports that EHRs have become more of a hindrance than a help.

He quotes Dr. Robert Walker, director of health innovation for the U.S. Army Surgeon General, who said in an interview, “The electronic medical record has become an impediment versus something that was going to streamline your day. It took the focus away from the patient and put it all on the computer. People are clicking boxes and turning their backs to patients. It’s all about jamming data into this thing.”

But despite EHR’s shortcomings, the fact is that the program is gathering great quantities of invaluable clinical data and storing it in data warehouses. Researchers can access and analyze this data using powerful Big Data engines like Hadoop.

That’s the real renaissance that’s going to happen in health care,” Walker said. “With big data, what happens in a doctor’s office is going to be vastly different from what we see today. The top five or 10 things that people die from in America are life-style induced. That’s absurd. Maybe instead of vital signs, I’m just going to look at what you buy in a grocery store.”

Mearian cites several areas that are already reflecting the promise of improved health care with the help of Big Data analytics.  For example, advanced drug therapies are being developed through the study of genomics – a.k.a. personalized medicine.  Or there is the free open source software called i2b2 informatics that has been developed by Dr. Isaac S Kohane, a professor of pediatrics and health sciences technology at Harvard Medical School & Children’s Hospital. The software is being used by more than 100 academic health centers around the world to identify genetic predictors for diseases and harmful drugs.

Dr. Walker believes the real game changer in medicine will be an engaged patient, one who will enter his or her own data through the use of mobile devices,” Mearian reports. “And that data can include not just medical information, but also lifestyle updates involving diet and exercise. By having a full picture of a patient’s lifestyle, doctors are better equipped to help patients avoid the onset of chronic illnesses. Then, once the data is in an EHR, big data analytics engines could offer physicians information about patients who may need to adjust their caloric intake, level of activity or the amount of sleep they get.

Walker comments: “The answer to the obesity problem is not the operating table, but the dinner table, and that’s where we need to get to. In this country, we’re putting billions of dollars into healthcare and our life expectancies are less than in countries that spend a fraction of what we do. We’re really doing disease care and not healthcare today.”

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