How technology and big data are healing healthcare

Greg McStravick Profile picture for user greg.mcstravick February 9, 2016
Could precision medicine be the life-saving technology that improves quality of care? SAP's Greg McStravick explains how healthcare is poised to overcome big data obstacles. He also shares SAP CEO Bill McDermott's story - and how McDermott envisions healthcare change.

The healthcare industry is undergoing transformative surgery. With the help of new technology solutions that can capture big data and help providers make sense of enormous amounts of available health information, the outcome is starting to look more positive for providers—and patients—in 2016.

But before we jump too far ahead, let’s take a look at where healthcare was hemorrhaging. Stymied because of concerns about patient confidentiality and the sharing of electronic health records (EHR), healthcare has lagged behind other industries such as banking, manufacturing, and retail in its productive use of technology and big data. While health data is already massive and growing exponentially--healthcare data is estimated to be 30% of the world’s data—interoperability between systems is elusive. Healthcare is burdened with siloed repositories owned by organizations, insurers, and providers that have no reason to make data sharable.

Progress in healthcare is based on the knowledgeable assessment of this accumulated data. If something works for one patient, doctors can try it on more and observe, which is the basis of the clinical trials process. But the amount of available data in healthcare has exploded so quickly that it’s nearing a breaking point. That data, coupled with a dizzying amount of vendors that provide software and services to manage medical records and health data, can overwhelm IT departments.

Healthcare IT departments have traditionally moved forward in a piecemeal fashion, buying one software system to fix one problem, then purchasing another for the next issue. IT systems and staff constantly hit interoperability roadblocks, so they cannot tap into the full potential of data analytics. This results in frustrated doctors and practitioners that don’t see the value of using data and technology in patient care. Unfortunately, the end result can be disjointed care for the patient.

The need for personalized medicine

The good news is that the healthcare industry is in turnaround mode. More than a year ago, the White House committed the nation to a $215 million investment in precision medicine. This initiative is driving the industry to look for ways to provide better treatment and patient care. To do this, healthcare providers, researchers, and hospitals need efficient, cost-effective systems to input and share information.

SAP CEO Bill McDermott understands the need for personalized medicine more than most. In July 2015, he suffered an accidental fall that caused significant injuries to one of his eyes. He underwent multiple surgeries that involved several doctors, specialists, surgeons, and weeks of recovery. Ultimately, his left eye could not be saved.

His personal experiences revealed a situation in which amazing, dedicated professionals are holding together a system where technology and regulations have let them down. Technology has not delivered the innovation necessary to help them focus the system around needs of individual patients.

In complicated, ongoing treatments, communication among physicians, specialists, hospitals, and the patient is a significant challenge. McDermott:

There is no one electronic medical record that comes before you, or follows you, throughout a case. Nobody owns the case. For instance, you see a retina specialist for an eye injury, that doctor opens a case. Then something goes wrong with the iris, and that’s a different specialist who also opens a case. Then something goes wrong with the lens. You can meet with five teams, all treating one eye. It’s not that it’s too many, but the choreography and the collaboration between all these individuals is just not there. The system is not organized that way.

A great deal of the healthcare data is unstructured, and it’s not easy for teams of medical professionals to access it. Dictated notes, medical records and charts, and even real-time texts make up this data – and much of that information doesn’t live in one system, where others can look at it, compare notes, and see test results, such as MRIs, CAT scans, and x-rays.

McDermott adds:

Doctors and patients are starved—they don’t have the healthcare data when they need it, at the point of decision, when it could positively affect the outcome.

Managing structured and unstructured data

Patients, doctors, and health professionals need a new architecture, a new approach to manage not just the structured, but also unstructured health information. This approach will create value that impacts the care of patients. Providers will learn new insights and carve out new treatments by making sense of the enormous amounts of available data.

Having an open architecture allows the enterprise to extract from multiple sources, so all information can be brought into the equation for the good of the patient. The end goal is to be able to aggregate billions of pieces of information, on a new architecture, that can deal with structured and unstructured data sources.

The sources of big data that can benefit a patient are numerous, and include genomic data, proteomics, metabolics, as well as testing data from radiology and other databases that include pharmaceutical research and personal medicine. All this information should ultimately follow the patient and be available at the point of care. The implementation and use of this big data—which can be accessed by all doctors with the consent of the patient—will result in improved care and outcomes.

When this big data is accessible to clinicians, doctors, and other medical experts, they have the information they need to make informed, real-time decisions and predictions of their patients’ health. They can more easily determine answers to the broad range of medical questions surrounding every patient and can more efficiently and effectively make the right diagnosis, helping patients and ultimately saving lives.

Creating value from big data

While progress and change has been slow, shining stars that have learned to tap into big data have emerged. One example is the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), a non-profit, professional oncology society with 35,000-plus members globally. ASCO is transforming care for cancer patients worldwide with CancerLinQ. SAP is pushing ahead also - with the SAP Foundation for Health. Learn more about how SAP is transforming healthcare: SAP Foundation for Health unlocks the value of patient data.

Doctors get new insights in seconds, not years, when they are deciding on treatment plans with patients. Many oncology practices around the U.S. have signed on as vanguard practices to provide patient records for the first version of CancerLinQ, and several more cancer centers will soon join this effort, meaning approximately 500,000 patients will be represented. The data will also be leveraged by data scientists at ASCO as part of its mission to improve the quality of cancer care across the country.

Healthcare touches all our lives. What hurdles have you experienced in personalized medicine? What examples have you seen where personalized medicine is being realized?

Image credit - Medical team working at the hospital all together © Production Perig -

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