Big Data makes healthcare less equal and better

May 27, 2015 | 3 min read

Big Data can be used to improve healthcare, says Egge van der Poel, lecturer at various TIAS programs. Of course, privacy is an important issue in healthcare. But "Big Data does not make healthcare less fair, just less equal. But that is actually a good thing: I often need different care than what my neighbor needs."

Image: © Nationale Beeldbank

Name: Egge van der Poel
Position: Freelance data scientist

"Perhaps, there are more definitions than experts when it comes to Big Data. There is often talk of the three Vs in the definition, namely, variety, volume, and velocity. For me, Big Data means solving problems with data. What it can do for you as an organization is more important than the precise definition. The aspect which I focus on is using Big Data as the key to better care. That means that I mainly focus on the V of variety. I use several data sources to improve care. I think that this allows me to achieve the best results in the short term.

When people realize that useful data can also be found in unknown sources, they can quickly gain insights from data. For example, discharge letters that patients receive when they are discharged from hospital often hold more information than a structured digital file. A digital file only allows you to check boxes, while a discharge letter gives more context. By analyzing all the unstructured data in discharge letters, you can learn more how patients vary within a hospital.

Working together is the biggest challenge

Because I especially focus on care and the variety of Big Data, the biggest challenge for me is to make parties work together. The parties are convinced of the need for cooperation but they won't share data just like that. That has to do with self-defense. They do not want to release their own data. It is also due to mistrust. What will the other party do with the data? And they do not want to compromise the patient's privacy.

Privacy is, of course, an important issue, but care institutions often hide behind it. When these issues are at play, I suggest asking the patient. Giving the patient a leading role in a Big Data project means explaining the objective to him and giving him the right to veto and leave the project. This really encourages the patient to cooperate. Sometimes the objective of a Big Data project is not clear, you do not know what can be improved after analysis. There is a problem there. You can solve that by giving the patient the right to veto.

There is a project in the Italian city of Trento from a MIT professor (Alex Pentland). The project’s objective is to improve public services. Citizens have given permission to analyze their personal data. They do this because they know for what purpose they make their data available and they have the option to leave the project. It is a fine example of public data sharing.

Afraid of unfair treatment

Of course, there is resistance among patients. They are afraid that they will be treated unfairly once they make their patient data available. Unfair treatment is already a reality. People can be treated differently just on the basis of their name. That is based on emotion, which is unfair. It is better to be treated differently based on facts, rather than on the basis of emotion. The amount and type of care also vary per person. Big Data does not make healthcare less fair, just less equal. But that is actually a good thing: I often need different care than what my neighbor needs.

Let us make it clear that the patient always owns the data. He is the one who generates that data. He therefore decides who sees what and when. A patient needs to be aware of that, as does the physician. Neurologist Bas Bloem put it very well in his TedX presentation: The doctor is not a god, but a guide. We need to move toward a model of shared decision-making, the doctor should be more transparent and show which data about the patient he/she enters. The patient should have access to that data.

Quick insights will be recovered quickly

Getting started with Big Data does not need to be difficult or expensive. You can start with two or three data scientists who will experiment with data analysis. These kinds of projects often provide insights that ultimately recoup the cost of those projects. For example, I did a project with a major retailer where we collected data in a two-week period that recouped the total project cost 50 times over.

That is why I think that Big Data can also be used to improve many things in the healthcare sector. And when you place the patient’s interests in the center of Big Data projects in healthcare your objectives no longer conflict with each other. After all, everyone working in healthcare aims to make things better for the patient, right?"

Ronald Mahieu, Director of Business Analytics LAB:"Developments in Health Analytics will lead to a revolution in medicine. In this interview Egge van der Poel discusses a number of important developments and challenges. Both the Health Lab and the Business Analytics Lab cover these areas in their teaching and research activities."

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