Health informatics and the data deluge

Every time you swipe your credit card, send an email or visit your favorite coffee shop, data is collected. Your fitness tracker counts your steps, your cell phone tracks your location, your streaming accounts monitor your entertainment preferences – and this information adds up quickly. According to Vouchercloud, Europe’s biggest mobile voucher app, the world creates 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day. You would need approximately 10 million blu-ray discs to store that much information properly. To put that in context, if the disks were piled one on top of the other, the stack would reach four times the height of the Eiffel tour.

Your entertainment and financial practices are not the only areas that collect this kind of data – the same is true of your healthcare activities. Whether you are receiving an annual flu shot at a clinic or taking an x-ray at an urgent care clinic, your provider notes, test results, billing codes and other information becomes part of the data of your online medical record.

Though this information is incredibly valuable for a variety of purposes in the healthcare industry, its worth is limited if it is not stored, organized and analyzed properly. To meet these needs, healthcare organizations are turning to health informatics professionals to play a critical role in helping providers and researchers maximize big data to advance patient care.

The 21st-century data deluge

When it comes to information science, big data is one of the hottest buzzwords of the decade. Generally defined simply as large quantities of information, big data is forcing scientists and other professionals who work with data to rethink how information in their field is stored and used.

A good amount of the data collected today relates to healthcare. Dr. John D. Halamka, Chief Information Officer of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, estimated that each patient accumulates approximately 80 megabytes of data each year – four for text and 76 for images. Because most states require that medical organizations store patient information for a certain number of years, this data will grow every 12 months until older files can begin to be deleted. For large organizations with thousands of patients, the storage requirements for such information is vast.

And when it comes to the high-profile nature of data in this industry, it is not just about the vast quantities. Healthcare data is among the most valuable information, which makes medical organizations at high-risk for breaches. A report by Reuters went as far as to say that your medical record is worth more to hackers than your credit card.

“As attackers discover new methods to make money, the healthcare industry is becoming a much riper target because of the ability to sell large batches of personal data for profit,” Dave Kennedy, CEO of TrustedSEC LLC, told Reuters. “Hospitals have low security, so it’s relatively easy for these hackers to get a large amount of personal data for medical fraud.”

Part of the appeal is that healthcare records do not only contain test results and appointment notes – they hold sensitive information that hackers can use to steal identities.

“Your EHR contains all of your demographic information – names, historical information of where you live, where you worked, the names and ages of your relatives, financial information like credit cards and bank numbers” Robert Lord, co-founder of cybersecurity company Protenus, told Forbes. “The medical record is the most comprehensive record about the identity of a person that exists today.”

Consequently, ensuring that this information is properly managed is a high priority of medical organizations, who not only want to make sure that they maximize its value within their group, but protect it from those outside the organization as well.

The challenge of siloed information

Even once the data is protected, healthcare organizations face other challenges in ensuring that this information is managed properly. One of the major challenges that the medical industry runs into is the silo effect.

In healthcare, fitness trackers may monitor a patient’s heart rate, but the use of this data is limited if it is not accessible to his or her primary care physician. In the same way, providers in an emergency department may hesitate to treat patients if they don’t have access to their medical record, but that information may be kept in a different department or office and obtaining the documents may take too much time. There are large amounts of data available, but when they are stored in different locations – or silos – their usefulness decreases significantly.

“The data is trapped in silos, and even if you open the silos, it’s kind of a mess,” Ida Sim, co-founder of mobile health non-profit Open mHealth, told PBS’ Nova Next. “It’s really, really hard to put the data together.”

As a result, the information may not translate to improved patient care, despite its potential to do so.

And the impact of this ineffective data use is not limited to patient outcomes. It can also affect a healthcare organization’s bottom line.

According to data-driven marketing firm Fathom, poor data can cost businesses 20 to 35 percent of their total operating revenue. In fact, the company estimated that the total cost of bad data or poor data quality cost businesses in the U.S. $600 billion each year. To put that number in context, the country’s defense budget for fiscal year 2017 was only $582.7 billion.

To a certain extent, the challenge of siloed information has been mitigated by efforts toward increasing interoperability, including legislation and funding from the federal government. However, it remains a challenge for healthcare organizations. In 2015, only 38 percent of non-federal acute care hospitals in the U.S. could use an electronic patient summary of care records provided by a source outside their system.

Health informatics and big data

To maximize the value of the vast deluge of data in healthcare, organizations are turning to health informatics professionals. An important part of that is growing the information and communication technologies help providers to exchange patient records and other data with outside organizations and share important information with remote patients.

“A lot of these challenges [in health care] can be supported by the avocation of information and communication technologies, particularly as hospitals are becoming more and more interested in reducing their costs and shifting care from hospital care to home care,” said Spyros Kitsiou, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical and health information sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

If you are interested in learning more about how health informatics professionals are helping care organizations navigate the 21st-century data deluge, consider enrolling in an online Master of Science in Health Informatics degree through the University of Illinois at Chicago. Through the completely online courses, you will explore healthcare communication systems, the analysis of health information systems, system design and more, learning how HI teams take hard data and translate it into meaningful action in the healthcare setting.

Recommended reading:

The growing health IT sector

How big data is affecting pharmacy practice

Cybersecurity: How it can be improved in healthcare?


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