Nov 02 2021
Data Analytics

How Big Data in Healthcare is Put to Work

Innovative data management technologies help organizations improve patient care and operations.

From patient questionnaires to Internet of Medical Things devices, healthcare systems collect, store and rely on massive streams of data to deliver care, especially as they undergo digital transformations.

In North Carolina, Chapel Hill-based UNC Health responded to the pandemic in 2020 by deploying new telemedicine capabilities, an online symptom-checker chatbot and automated models to create forecasts on hospitalizations. UNC Health then integrated the information generated from those technologies into its data warehouse.

“It helped us make daily operational decisions to support the breadth of the system as we were facing the pandemic,” says Brent Lamm, senior vice president and deputy CIO at UNC Health. “Even now, our healthcare leaders have access to a dashboard with a weekly forecast of COVID-19 hospitalizations. We’ve been able to give them a head start on planning that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

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Across all industries, organizations are now managing more data, nearly 14 petabytes on average, according to Dell Technologies’ 2020 Global Data Protection Index (1 petabyte is just over 1 million gigabytes).

In healthcare, providers and patients want to see more done with all that data. Some 75 percent of healthcare consumers want to work together with providers on wellness goals, according to Deloitte research, and 85 percent of physicians expect interoperability and data sharing to become standardized.

The pandemic has highlighted the value of innovative technologies to gather, manage and gain insights from the vast stores of data that hospitals collect, guiding them toward improved care and adaptive clinical workflows.

“The pandemic has been a huge validation of the path we were on and the investments we’ve made in data management,” Lamm says. “I think we’re going to see a gradual shift in the coming years toward more trust and acceptance of artificial intelligence and machine learning, new digital health capabilities and more surveillance-type monitoring of patient populations.”

AI Powers More Healthcare Solutions

Healthcare systems were already exploring the capabilities of emerging technologies to create action from their data before the pandemic. For instance, hospitals have used AI to detect sepsis, predict patients at risk for certain diseases and project surgical case duration.

Clinical research can take a long time, says Cleveland Clinic CIO Matthew Kull. The opportunity to conduct research in a digital domain before moving to human trials can shorten the discovery cycle. AI can evaluate large amounts of data in a way that humans cannot.

“As we can start to manage the holistic picture of our patients’ data in the digital domain, I think we’re going to become far more proactive in how we diagnose and treat so that we can focus more on human wellness as opposed to responding to symptoms,” Kull says.

LEARN MORE: Find out how artificial intelligence can improve patient outcomes.

Historically, finances and infrastructures have constrained healthcare organizations’ processing power. Now, large cloud providers offer access to compute horsepower that many organizations could never have maintained in-house.

“They’ve designed and built the flexibility on top of that compute to custom slice and dice it,” says Andrew Truscott, managing director for health and public service at Accenture. “I think it’s going to mean an increasing velocity of clinical insights.”

The challenge for the industry is its plurality of systems that encode data differently, adds Truscott, who is also chairman-elect of the data standards development organization Health Level Seven International (HL7).

Truscott and Kull are hopeful that the industry will continue to adopt data models based upon standards such as HL7’s Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources. A single standard, combined with the interoperability of patient care and the prohibition of data blocking as mandated by the 21st Century Cures Act, “will allow us to exchange information far more freely, in the best interest of the patient,” Kull says.

Democratizing Healthcare Data to Empower People

UNC Health was already building the infrastructure to support data-driven initiatives well before the pandemic.

The healthcare system’s information services team had been upgrading its data warehouse environment to an SAP HANA-based platform that supports data virtualization.

“Integrating a new data set into our data warehouse platform went from taking a matter of weeks to now a matter of days,” Lamm says.

Brent Lamm
We have to figure out how we empower people to access insights and data.”

Brent Lamm Senior Vice President and Deputy CIO, UNC Health

UNC Health also rolled out the Tableau analytics platform, enabling its analysts to seamlessly create dashboards customized for their individual business units.

Democratization of data has been a primary goal of UNC Health’s enterprise analytics team.

“There is such a hunger at every level in our organization for insights,” Lamm says. “We have to figure out how we empower people to access insights and data more easily and quickly.”

Ready for Digital Health Innovation

In northern New Jersey, Holy Name Medical Center’s IT team was in the midst of an infrastructure upgrade in 2020. The team was redesigning its electronic medical records platform when COVID-19 vaccines became available.

Holy Name, like other hospitals, issued paper vaccination cards. “We looked at it and said, ‘Well, this is silly and time-consuming. Let’s just create a digital card,’” says Michael Maron, president and CEO of the acute care facility across the river from New York City.

With work already underway from the EMR upgrade, which included updating its technology stack to a cloud-based architecture and eliminating redundant data elements, Holy Name pivoted quickly. Its myHealth Pass application, secured by blockchain technology, enables patients to schedule their shots, receive appointment confirmations and reminders, and access their vaccine records digitally or via plastic cards.

DISCOVER: Go behind the mass vaccination effort to learn how providers adapted quickly.

Providers can use myHealth Pass to digitally document the manufacturer, lot number and to which arm the vaccine was injected. That data then seamlessly uploads to the state registry.

While Holy Name saw a pressing need for digital vaccine records, its goal is to make more healthcare data available to patients.

“Certain key clinical elements should be front and center for every person all the time — allergies, blood type, vaccine history, current medications,” Maron says. “Those lists should be easily accessible and maintained.”

Keith Negley/Theispot

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