As humanity continues to advance and adapt to an uncertain future, the sharing, storing, and collecting of information has become increasingly nuanced. Big data now plays a major role in daily life, while also helping businesses and public entities to access new information and share their own, to retain customers and constituents. Additionally, governments and healthcare providers are taking advantage of big data to improve public health outcomes.
The COVID-19 pandemic is part of the overall picture as well, exemplifying the myriad ways in which data science can be harnessed for the greater good. Even before the pandemic altered life as we know it, the healthcare industry faced numerous challenges in terms of public health. The growing need for evidence-based policies and accessible healthcare information, among both patients and providers alike, helped fuel the rise of data science within the healthcare industry.
As the transmission of information becomes increasingly accessible, public health outcomes have improved, even as the pandemic continues to change the data analytics industry. Big data allows public health experts and government entities alike to better gauge public health needs and perceptions related to COVID-19. In turn, those conscientious professionals can then share information of their own with the general public, giving people the tools they need to make informed healthcare decisions.
Yet for all its societal and scientific benefits, data analytics is far from infallible. Security and patient privacy are particularly notable in this regard, as healthcare data may be vulnerable to hackers. The unfortunate reality is that healthcare data breaches are commonplace, and the bulk of those incidents involve at least 500 individual records.
And those numbers are negligible when you consider the colossal healthcare data breaches that have occurred in recent years, compromising the personal health records of millions of people. In 2015, a single hacking incident at Anthem, a major health insurance provider, affected an estimated 78 million individuals. The sheer magnitude of the breach, coupled with incidents at Premera Blue Cross and Excellus, made 2015 the worst year in history where healthcare record exposure is concerned.
While potential vulnerabilities still exist in 2021, big data continues to improve and evolve, and keeping data safe over the long term is one of the industry’s target goals. Increasingly, the healthcare sector is looking to other industries for inspiration and to achieve a competitive edge. Business analytics, for example, is gaining traction within companies of all sizes as a means of streamlining and removing the guesswork from the decision-making process. But make no mistake: data collection algorithms often require human intervention to achieve actionable results.
Ambiguity has no place in business, especially healthcare, and big data helps keep personal biases and concepts such as intuition out of the equation. Rather, data science algorithms simply present the requested data, from patient demographics to infection rates of various diseases and beyond. Once the data is collected, however, it’s up to healthcare professionals and data scientists to make sense of it all. Real-time insights are another vital aspect of the process, and healthcare workers are at the forefront of the experience.
In working to curb COVID infection rates, for example, government entities have collaborated with healthcare professionals to crunch the numbers derived from big data and develop actionable solutions. In Canada, policymakers looked at myriad data, including the daily interactions of essential staff, to better track the spread of the virus. The resulting public health orders may have saved countless lives and helped curb the spread of COVID in British Columbia and surrounding territories.
As long as diseases and health problems exist, healthcare data will continue to pile up, and it needs somewhere to go. In many ways, electronic health records have helped revolutionize the process of health record storage. No longer do healthcare facilities need massive filing cabinets or warehouses in which to store patient data and medical journals.
From a patient perspective, big data has made it easier than ever to access personal records, provider recommendations, and more. The ease of access may also result in lower costs of care, as patients don’t necessarily have to visit their healthcare provider to have questions answered.
What’s more, accessible information can also serve to improve public health, as patients take control of their own healthcare in greater numbers. Data analytics and the transmission of peer-reviewed medical advice may also serve to quell the spread of medical misinformation that is unfortunately rampant on the internet.
Back in 2017, when big data was still stretching its legs, the healthcare industry lagged well behind myriad other sectors. It’s come a long way since then. Interestingly, the pandemic has served to further advance the industry, as well as demonstrate the crucial nature of big data in a digital, socially distanced world.