Big Data Part I: Championing Healthcare

June 7, 2013

The authors of this post are JR Reed and Erik Sulcs. JR and Eric originally published this story on the blog of

This is the first of a two-part series on big data’s effects on various industries.
In 1869, former Congressman James Garfield declared: “The use of statistics will change how societies are governed.” 
One hundred forty years later, the future president’s bold prophecy has come to fruition – and in a big way. 
Throughout the 21st century, we have seen information captured, analyzed, and then communicated at staggering rates. In fact, 90% of the world’s data has been produced in just the past two years. 
This incredible surge of information is often referred to as “big data”. Big data is a movement, a paradigm shift, a new way of life – and something that is completely transforming the world around us. It has become the most powerful component of each sector in the global economy, driving trillions of bytes of critical information about buyers, suppliers, and products to help businesses and consumers alike. 
And, with its market expected to grow to $16.9 billion by 2015, big data’s effects should be felt even more in the future. Gartner Inc., a leading technology research company, predicts the information boom will create 4.4 million technology jobs globally. Each tech job will then generate three non-IT positions. That’s a total of 13.2 new million jobs sprouting up across the globe – and all thanks to big data.  
During the most recent installment of the U.S. Chamber Foundation’s Business Horizon Series, business professionals and thought leaders gathered to discuss big data’s impacts on businesses. Chamber Executive Vice President David Chavern explained, as the world’s fastest growing commodity, big data has an impact on everyone’s lives. “No one goes untouched by the revolution, and it’s something we here at the Chamber want to learn a lot more about,” Chavern said.
Although some businesses have started to use data in effective ways, many can capitalize more in several key arenas. Big data can impact finance, education, and international trade, while improving lives in cities and further personalizing the consumer experience. 
Perhaps the area with the most potential, however, is the healthcare industry, where 30 cents of every dollar is wasted and only 20% of the knowledge clinicians use is evidence-based. 
IBM’s Vice President of Watson Solutions Stephen Gold, one of the event’s keynote speakers, underscored that organizations that harness big data outperform those that don’t. Through the advent of the supercomputer Watson and other cognitive devices, Gold and the IBM team have advanced data analysis and allowed businesses to use this overflow of data to their advantage. 
In the healthcare sector, Watson is revolutionizing treatment options and helping improve the industry’s efficiency. This supercomputer can quickly synthesize the overload of information in physicians’ offices to help doctors reach evidence-based decisions about a patient
“This is an opportunity to advance how we practice medicine,” Gold said. “As a citizen, I want to see 100% of the knowledge physicians use be evidence-based. This will allow researchers to advance therapy and also get medicine into the market in a much shorter period of time.” 
According to Gold, Watson could specifically help oncologists diagnose and treat cancer. Using analytics, Watson would improve the patient experience by sifting through data to pinpoint treatment options and then ranking those according to the patient’s preferences.
Focusing further on this notion of personalized medicine, Vice President of Real World Data Marc Berger noted that big data could help ensure patients follow a prescribed treatment. Analytics could monitor who will likely fill a subscription and potentially design ways to ensure people stay on medications.  
“Big data will allow patients to understand that there is a treatment that is right for them,” Berger said. “We are trying to get personalized medicine, and this would transform the pharmaceutical industry. But these are early stages. We are on the cusp of a new revolution, but it will take a lot.”
In spite of the potential, because personal data about consumers is collected constantly, some critics worry big data could take away from individual privacy. 
Supporters and critics alike agree that big data must only be used to benefit individuals.
Oracle’s Director of Engineered Systems and Big Data Programs Mark Johnson discussed the challenges involved in big data operations, especially in healthcare. He argued that businesses must appeal to the public and legislators by developing internal privacy practices that keep databases secure while limiting the exposure of customer information. Johnson characterizes big data as a “tool”, but, when using that tool, everyone must share what exactly it is they are collecting.
“The Cancer Institute came to us, saying that they want to use big data technology to sort through 20,000 genomes to give personalized medicine,” Johnson said. “This is too important to let go, but we need to take people through the process to let them see that the benefits outweigh the negatives.”
In my next post, I will examine how big data can benefit cities, municipalities, and other types of business industry.