How big data is affecting pharmacy practice

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Medication spilled on the tablePharmacy practice is an integral component of the healthcare system in the U.S. From the creation of drugs to the distribution of prescriptions, there are a large number of steps that go into getting the right medication into the hands of the right patient at the right time. Today, as in much of the healthcare industry, the processes of the pharmaceutical practice are undergoing constant change. One of the major catalysts for this evolution is the incorporation of big data.

The pharmaceutical facet of healthcare is full of data. Large quantities of patient information are regularly collected and shared between providers and pharmacy staff to ensure that the patient receives the care that they need. While this data has traditionally been used to simply ensure that the right prescription – in the correct dosage – is distributed to the proper patient, key stakeholders are finding that the information can also be leveraged to improve several other important areas of pharmacy practice.

Specifically, data use is affecting pharmacy practice in terms of managing health care plan expenditures, monitoring consumer use of prescription drugs and advancing research and development efforts.

Big data meets big pharma

One of the ways that big data is affecting pharmacy practice can be found in the work of pharmacy benefit managers. These third-party administrators work to improve health outcomes while reducing the expenditures of the health care plan they serve. This work has been improved by the collection and analysis of mass quantities of data, which helps the organizations identify trends and problems.

An example is the company OptumRx, which found, through data analysis, that medication meant to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder was being overprescribed for adult patients. The organization discovered that some recipients of the drugs were abusing the prescription to enhance performance in the workplace. The steps the benefit manager took to combat this problem saved the company $110,000.

“Sometimes we’re looking at patterns at a very broad-based level,” Andrea Marks, chief analytics officer at OptumRx, told Bloomberg, “Sometimes at an individual level.”

For companies like OptumRx, big data provides valuable opportunities for reducing expenditures while improving the health of prescription plan recipients.

Consumer use of prescription drugs

Increased data use is also playing a role in the process of administering drugs to consumers. Similar to the way that OptumRx used its patient data to identify abuse of ADHD medication, other organizations at various levels are leveraging this information to determine whether or not patients are adhering to the instructions that accompany their prescriptions.

When a course of treatment involving a medication is prescribed for a patient, the provider is operating under the assumption that instructions for the drug will be followed. However, this is not always the case. Many times patients do not take their medication as frequently as they are instructed, often change the dose taken or otherwise fail to comply to the recommended course of treatment. Analyzing prescription data can help identify these patients who are not adhering to the instructions.

Ensuring compliance in this way is not just about improving patient outcomes. Non-compliance is also taking a large financial toll on healthcare in the U.S. In 2015, Forbes reported that non-adherence was estimated to cost the U.S. approximately $290 billion, which equated to about 13 percent of total spending on healthcare nationwide, or of 2.3 percent of GDP.

Big data use can also reveal abuse, which is a particular priority of healthcare professionals in light of the current opioid epidemic in the U.S. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, an average of 3,900 people initiate nonmedical use of prescription opioids every day in the U.S. and 78 people die as the result of an opioid-related overdose.

“We are in the midst of a national epidemic,” Dr. Jerry Epps, senior vice president and chief medical officer of University Health Systems, told Becker’s Hospital Review. “If you look at the number of opioids we as physicians prescribe, we are prescribing enough for every American adult to have a bottle of opioid pills at any point in time.”

By analyzing the frequency with which patient refill prescriptions and other use-related data, healthcare providers and organizations can identify who may be at risk of opioid addiction and other instances of prescription drug abuse.
Research and development

According to global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, pharmaceutical research and development has been experiencing reduced rates of success, as well as stagnation in the industry pipeline. However, the company believes that big data could be part of the answer.

McKinsey reported that if pharmaceutical companies implemented the following eight measures, they would be able to both manage and analyze their data more effectively en route to improving the Research and Development (R&D) process:

  1. “Integrate data generated from all stages.
  2. Collaborate both internally and externally.
  3. Implement portfolio decision-support that is IT-enabled.
  4. Make use of new discovery technologies.
  5. Deploy smart devices for data capture.
  6. Improve efficiency of clinical trials.
  7. Enhance safety monitoring.
  8. Increase focus on real-world outcomes.”

Using big data to implement these eight strategies, pharmaceutical organizations will be able to improve the efficiency and innovation of their R&D departments, increasing success rates and improving the pipeline.

The challenge of big data in pharmacy

While increased data collection and analysis in pharmacy practice offers numerous benefits to patient care and healthcare business operations, these advantages come with a risk. As more information is stored online, cyber threats present a growing challenge for the pharmacy industry. In fact, a 2017 study by Accenture found that this type of data theft is most likely to occur in pharmacy practice. In addition to causing financial loss, these breaches also decrease consumer confidence in individual healthcare groups.

“Health organizations must monitor patient information more carefully and remain transparent with those affected in the event of a breach, to swiftly resolve the issue without losing consumers to competitors,” said Aimie Chapple, managing director of health practice and client innovation for Accenture in the U.K. and Ireland. “The time to assure consumers that their personal data is in secure, capable hands is now.”

To meet this increasing need, healthcare organizations, including pharmacy benefit groups, are hiring qualified health informatics professionals to ensure that this information is handled properly and work closely with the health information management professionals who maintain the security of patient databases.

If you are interested in joining this growing field, consider applying to the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Master of Science in Health Informatics program. Through courses on topics such as health information systems and their applications, you will be equipped to pursue a fulfilling career in health informatics.

Recommended reading:

The growing health IT sector

How health informatics is making medicine more efficient

How health care analytics improves patient care