Big Data and the consumerization of healthcare Data Science Stories


How Big Data could mean the difference between life and death

In the 1980s, an average jogger carried a Walkman and played tapes to have some music while running. In the 1990s, joggers used MP3 players to listen to music and started wearing wireless heart rate monitors. In the new millennium, the iPod provided the music. After the launch of Apple’s App Store in 2008, a whole new world of applications for people who are into sports and care about their health was made available. For a few dollars (or even for free) they could now measure their performance, calories burned, heart rate, distance run,… and get a clear visualization and insights from it to become even fitter and healthier. And they could share all that data with peers to motivate them also.

Today, these devices have moved beyond the park and the running track. The Nike+ Fuelband, for example, is a digital bracelet that measures your steps and calories and turns this into NikeFuel. This motivates users to reach their health goals. FitBit is a wireless device that does more or less the same. You can use it to connect wirelessly to a scale and integrate it with a mobile app to log the food you eat during the day (or night). ‘Know Your Body, Change Your Life,’ is the credo of BodyMedia which offers a device that even measures heat, sweat and sleep patterns. People want to live a healthier life and now they have no excuse not to.

There are also many medical devices out there today, aimed solely at consumers. A simple iPhone can be turned into an alarm clock that wakes you at the right time, based on your sleep cycle. It’s even possible to turn it into a device that measures your blood sugar level or a scanner to diagnose  melanomas on your skin, or even your very own EEG heart monitor. Last but not least, there are sensor-equipped and smartphone-connected asthma inhalers that let patients manage the disease more effectively.

And it goes even further than that. The consumerization of healthcare even allows anyone - who has 299 dollars to spare - to get their DNA analyzed. A company called 23andMe provides genetic testing for over 100 common traits and diseases as well as DNA ancestry. All you have to do is order a stick, spit on it and send it back.

The ‘quantified self ’ is increasingly entering the world of healthcare. This means people can now become responsible for their own health. They are motivated through game-like applications and they can benchmark their own health efforts against others around them. Active healthcare prevention is shifting from the institutions to individuals.

In other words, they generate millions of bytes of data – Big Data - that holds enormous potential value to improve healthcare in the broadest sense: from government healthcare policies to hospital protocols and drug research.

Patients today have a stronger voice than ever. They are surprisingly well informed through online communities and encyclopedia. They share, they learn, they organize themselves. A community such as PatientsLikeMe groups over 150,000 patients who share their symptoms, concerns, experiences with treatment and healing stories about over 1,000 conditions. As of July 2012 PatientsLikeMe members have shared 4,029,661 symptom reports about 7,338 symptoms and 548,650 treatment histories about 12,838 treatments.

They can connect with people with similar symptoms and check what medication was effective and what not. They can get answers to questions they would not dare ask their physicians. They want to talk to patients like them. To share a burden, but also to try and find a solution that benefits their health.

Dave deBronkart, is a famous example of a patient who tapped into the knowledge and experience of an online network of patients with a disease like his own. Diagnosed with stage IV kidney cancer and a projected time left of 24 weeks, he started engaging with people who had a similar condition. ‘E-patient Dave’, as he started calling himself, learned about treatment options and found support for his recovery.

He was successfully treated and today he is a sought-after TEDx speaker who has dedicated his life to empowering patients to have access to the best healthcare possible by connecting with resources online. Tens of thousands of patients out there are generating and collecting data to achieve insights into their own way of life or their medical condition.

Bottom line is: if all this Big Data could be tapped into and combined with medical records from healthcare providers, data from pharmaceutical companies, census data, statistics from health insurance companies, etc. the potential to improve our knowledge on disease management is almost unlimited. Big Data is transforming the healthcare industry as we speak. There is no other industry out there to which Big Data can bring such high value. Not just because it could improve efficiencies, but because it could mean the difference between life and death.


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