What does ‘big data’ really mean?

The term ‘big data’ has been bandied around for several years but what do we really know about it? Do we understand the implications and should we know more about how it fits into our healthcare infrastructure?

I’ve just read an article in the Guardian in which NHS England director of patients and information, Tim Kelsey, explains how ‘big data’ has the potential to transform the performance of the NHS. But how can he be so confident?

The development of technology has completely changed the landscape we live in. From the first computers, which were the size of a warehouse, to tiny microchips which hold more data than we could ever imagine, technology has advanced at a frightening pace. This has had numerous consequences and not all of them have been positive. Such has been the speed of change that some healthcare providers have been left behind, dragging their heels and unwilling to embrace change. However for the most part, industry has welcomed change. It has been seen as a positive step in meeting the constant demands put upon us. Developments such as the implementation of electronic patient records (EPRs), healthcare information exchange, clinical decision support plus many more, are already having an impact on how the industry operates.

So what has the NHS done to keep up with the Jones’s?
According to Kelsey, the NHS is still yet to fully embrace the technology revolution. Maybe this has been due to a lack of understanding or an unwillingness to change? Kelsey believes the NHS can learn from other industries, such as aviation and finance, which have seen an increase in customer satisfaction through their use of technological solutions. The desire for a paperless NHS, implementation of trust-wide EPRs and other similar government initiatives prove that we are moving in the right direction but where does ‘big data’ fit into all of this?

Technology is only as good as the data you put in it. The quality of data is key. What the NHS is striving towards is a system from which accurate statistics on the health of our nation can be extracted. Moreover the ability to analyse data on the prevalence of chronic conditions or the impact of a social setting on a person’s health will allow healthcare managers to plan resources and budgets more accurately. This will take time, however, with the £30bn funding gap in 2020 to address; this surely presents a major step in the right direction.

Deploying technology and data is not all about saving money. It has a crucial impact on quality of care too. If local NHS services are commissioned as a result of data that accurately reflects local needs then patients will benefit. For example, if there is a high prevalence of a certain cancer type in the Midlands, the data pulled from technology will highlight this and appropriate services (such as PET/CT scans, specialist clinics etc) will be made available. What this allows is for better budget planning. No more ‘finger in the air’ guesses as to what we think is the case. We will know.

With patients soon to have online access to their own personal health records, there is more pressure on the NHS to ensure that the data from which we run our health service is correct. Information in the public domain will be just that – public – there will be nowhere to hide.

The explosion of data available means the sky’s the limit with regards to what technology can do to shape our NHS. Primary care is already digitised and NHS England is concentrating on providing online patient records and the ability to order prescriptions via the web. The only sticking point is secondary care which although engaged in various implementations, including the exchange of patient data between care settings, lags behind in terms of development – with many hospitals at differing stages of digitisation.

So what does this really mean?
If we get it right, ‘big data’ will define how, what and why we do things, providing more transparency, meaning there will be an audit trail providing evidence of decision-making. It really does have the potential to transform our health service. There is also a lot of discussion about the effect ‘big data’ will have on patient privacy. This debate will rumble on until qualified assurance is given that patients will be completely protected. It is a whole different ball game and the subject of forthcoming Highland Marketing blogs, no doubt!

What is clear is that we are moving in the right direction. Not necessarily in complete harmony but certainly for the right reason. The impact this will have is big. Really big! The way technology and the ‘big data’ within it shapes our healthcare system will continue to develop and the impact should not be underestimated.

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