Big data can revolutionize health care

Micron Technology | September 2019

The health care industry is in the business of performing miracles. Whether giving sight to the blind, helping the paralyzed walk or sequencing genes to stave off disease, today’s doctors and surgeons are saving and improving lives in new ways. Society is blessed to have geniuses wearing stethoscopes and lab coats.

Despite immense progress, the health care industry still struggles to answer its most pressing questions. How do we help more people live longer, healthier lives? How do we rein in skyrocketing costs? How, in an age when data breaches are commonplace, do we protect the raft of personal information and medical records?

The answers, according to researchers at Stanford University, lie in taming the sheer volume of data created in the industry and then using it to solve problems.

Stanford researchers analyzed the needs, potential and power of big data and reported the results in a white paper titled “Harnessing the Power of Data in Health.” Among its most salient points: we’ve come a long way in terms of harnessing big data to improve healthcare, and with evolving technology, there is so much potential to go even farther.

The report summarizes numerous developments to improve health care, including wearable technology to detect health problems, telemedicine, direct-to-consumer solutions and better IT strategizing.

“Behind these key themes lies an important common thread: the power of data and its potential to fundamentally transform the future of health care,” the report says.

Amassing data

According to the International Data Corporation, the health care industry generated about 153 exabytes of data in 2013, roughly equivalent to 2.6 trillion music albums. That number will skyrocket to an estimated 2,314 exabytes in 2020, more than an 11,000% spike.

Health care infographic

There is always room for improvement — the health care industry can do more with all this data to better predict health problems and improve outcomes, both for individuals and within large patient groups.

48%: The estimated annual increase in data generated in healthcare.

Source: International Data Corporation

Such efforts are already underway. For example, medical schools at Stanford and Duke University are collaborating on Project Baseline, which will collect comprehensive health data from 10,000 participants over four years to build a map of human health and disease.

Personal records remain private, but massive aggregations of data, stripped of identifying information, are now publicly available for researchers and data analytics companies to process. For example, in 2015, Apple launched its open-source ResearchKit software framework. ResearchKit collects genetic data and medical test results from iOS users and makes them available in research and diagnostics.

“Data is fundamentally changing the research enterprise and creating new extraordinary opportunities to learn things that were either un-learnable or would have taken generations.”

Source: Stanford faculty

Big data could lead to the ability to detect and prevent problems before they arise, be leveraged to build better treatment plans for the sick and create more effective drug plans. Drugs could be completely simulated within computer systems, reducing expensive medical trials and unnecessary risks to trial participants while improving new drug development.

According to the report, “With the potential to replace many studies typically conducted in labs, big data will be positioned to revolutionize the process of medical research as we know it.”

Health care you wear

Take wearable technology. To some degree, consumers are already using devices that monitor their heart rate, track calories, count steps and otherwise assist with fitness-related goals. The market for wearable tech is growing and expected to reach $350 million by 2020, according to Kalorama Information.

However, Stanford researchers expect that market to dramatically shift. Instead of being workout buddies, pieces of wearable technology will be issued to customers from companies in and adjacent to health care. Those devices – which could include tiny implants – could transmit data tracking the wearer’s well-being, changes in health and recovery. Regarding projected use of wearable tech, the report cites a survey published by PwC on the subject, “The Wearable Life 2.0.”

“Soon, medical centers, rather than tech and fitness companies, will become the de facto providers of wearables. In fact, a majority of people already agree that they would be excited to experience wearable technology from a doctor (65%), from a hospital (62%) or a health insurance company (62%),” the Stanford report says.

Some experts suggest that invisible or implanted wearables will become the norm and will create continuous streams of data and health tracking, while at-home testing will help detect diseases in a more targeted way. For instance, research from Stanford Medicine has shown that wearable devices can use biosensors to detect symptoms of possible illness, such as Lyme disease, insulin resistance and inflammatory disease.

Power to the patient

Technology and the data generated from it will continue to reshape how patients receive health care, and, in some cases, take control of it.

Telemedicine – or connecting patients with doctors via phone or web portals – makes checkups more convenient for patients, especially those living in rural areas. The telemedicine market grew from $240 million in 2013 to a projected $1.9 billion in 2018, says HIS Technology.

According to the American Telemedicine Association, 72% of hospitals had telemedicine programs in 2016, as did 52% of physician groups. The percentage of large employers offering telemedicine benefits jumped from 48% in 2015 to 74% the following year.

The report says this growth exemplifies how technology can increase access to health care — a major problem for some patients — and enhance efficiency for both patients and providers. Courtney Combe, PA-C, a psychiatric physician assistant, sees patients by telemedicine web portals two of the five days of her work week.

“Telemedicine helps me serve patients in areas that otherwise wouldn’t receive care,” Combe says. “When I do a mental health assessment, it doesn’t require any physical contact on my part. So telemedicine works perfectly in most cases.

Combe said that mental health is an underserved discipline in even the most densely populated areas. Small towns have an even harder time attracting doctors, especially psychiatrists.

Until the adoption of telemedicine, rural patients who needed mental health care essentially had to choose one of the following options:

  • Rely on a primary care physician who, in many cases, is not specialized or lacks the practice to effectively treat mental illness.
  • Travel to the next biggest city to see a specialist.
  • Go untreated.

All too often, the last option of going untreated is the inevitable choice. Telemedicine bridges the gap in rural areas with technology, bringing doctors and patients closer together. Telemedicine coupled with direct-to-consumer testing is another approach that reduces the need to meet face to face with a medical profession, providing patients autonomy through technology.

“Various types of testing, including digitized glucose tests, blood pressure and genetic testing, are allowing individuals to take control of their health without requiring interaction with doctors, insurance companies or pharmacies,” the Stanford report says.

As a result, direct-to-consumer testing is expected to grow from $15 million in 2010 to $350 million by 2020, according to Kalorama Information.

Get with the program

The boon that big data promises to deliver comes with drawbacks. Perhaps most obvious, the industry’s dive into big data requires expensive infrastructure, as well as an unfamiliar kind of strategizing. Many health care businesses aren’t keeping up.

According to Deloitte, 80% of health care organizations surveyed did not have an “integrated strategy for using analytics.” One-third of health systems reported they did not know what they spent on analytics, and 25% reported they had no data governance model in place.

That’s a waste of good data.

According to Stanford researchers, “Organizations that lack the tools to analyze data will only be able to collect and store it, but they will not be equipped to interpret the data to improve patient outcomes or influence public health.”

Clearly, the health care industry has a way to go to improve care, save lives and lower costs. The Stanford report is clear that we won’t get there without unlocking big data’s potential. Today more than 2.5 quintillion bytes per day are stored, shared and streamed around the world, a figure that will increase exponentially in the coming years.

Micron knows data. As an industry leader for nearly 40 years, our memory and storage solutions are the heart of big data innovation, empowering health care and other industries to improve their data centers and data processes in ways that can lead to a healthier tomorrow. Micron’s advanced computing solutions are being used to accelerate artificial intelligence (AI) applications in diverse areas, from particle physics experiments to cancer research. Whether it is storing medical records in SSDs, graphics memory rapidly feeding an AI algorithm, low-power DRAM embedded in wearable technology, or multidimensional databases living in persistent memory technologies to identify trends in data that researchers couldn’t imagine, Micron has the solutions to support the bright future of big data and health care.