How big data is being used to improve our health

How big data is being used to improve our health

What do Florence Nightingale, known the world over for revolutionising nursing in the Victorian era and Ada Lovelace, now recognised for her innovation in first describing the computer and software, have in common?

Their pioneering work and legacies live on in improved nursing, standards of cleanliness in our hospitals, and computational and analytical techniques in data and population health. The passion, commitment and breakthroughs these two women made in the fields of computing and analytics more than 150 years ago are part of the process that led towards “big data” today.

Nightingale was a champion of using healthcare statistics to highlight problems and potential solutions, but she was also the recognised pioneer in creating tools for visualising this information in order to help others understand it. She created a variant of the pie chart - known as a polar area diagram - to eloquently identify and strikingly illustrate to civil servants the problems in medical treatment of soldiers during the Crimean War.

The process of collating large amounts of statistical information - or data - and packaging it into a chart - or visualisation - which may reveal wider patterns or insights which could in turn save lives, reduce waiting times, or simply save money has been around in healthcare since Nightingale’s innovations. Combined with today’s computing and networking power, “big data” is promising a revolution in our nation’s health, care and wellbeing service.

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On an individual level, utilising big data in healthcare can pave the way towards personalised, pre-emptive advice and warnings that can ultimately lead to better health and improved quality of life. But before we get to the outcomes, how do we go about harnessing the power of this data?

One of the biggest perceived obstacles facing healthcare organisations looking to move with the technological times in terms of how they handle data, is patient trust. Taking advantage of public or private cloud services might make sense from an operational point of view, but for the individuals served by these organisations, how and where their data is stored is an important factor. Recent high-profile data breaches, lack of awareness and education around the differences between the various methods of data storage and access, does not help with this issue of trust and organisations must work hard to assure individuals that their data is safe.

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Yet this is a somewhat curious situation. Every time an individual does internet research, shops online or uses a loyalty card somewhere for example, they are creating personal information about them that they neither own nor control. This data is captured, combined with that of countless others (big data) and then processed to deliver personalised recommendations, special offers, or other relevant services based upon their habitual behaviour and activities. People are content with this level of data usage if it can deliver them added value. So what could be more valuable to a person than their own health and wellbeing?

In today’s connected world, health professionals, care workers, families and citizens are all increasingly able to collect significant amounts of data, including medical data; using Fitbit, Microsoft Band, smart watches, monitors and a range of other health devices. In each case, there are major opportunities for innovation, for collaborative working and for businesses and citizens to contribute to improvements in services.

Underpinning all of this needs to be a secure, scalable and reliable platform, allowing for all this information to be managed on a level where trust can be established and maintained between those creating the data and those responsible for safeguarding and making sense of it. The cloud is where this can happen.

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Progress in turning big data into service delivery improvements will need the trust of citizens, and co-creation between the different participants. Citizens expect data to be protected by the medical providers, and place high trust in GPs. Maximising opportunities for innovation will come when citizens, businesses and service providers find areas of collaboration.

Data can be aggregated, matched to other data sets and generate insights into citizen science, health and wellbeing information. Imagine if the power of the crowd that is gathering this data could also store it, and give consent for it to be used to treat citizens. With its remote geography, and constantly improving connectivity Scotland is well placed to implement new health services and to work with big data analytics to shift resources to prevention and improve the health, care and wellbeing of citizens.


Comments 1

  1. Shouldn’t this be titled “how big data may be used someday to improve our heAlth?” In addition, in explaining it’s lack of progress, blame the patient. What a bunch of crisp.

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