Connected Health: Big Data Upends Medical Infrastructure

May 8, 2014

The era of big data, facilitated by declining costs of computing, connectivity, and storage, and the general availability of smart technologies and new analytics tools, is no longer isolated to the information industry. Or perhaps better put, the information industry is increasingly absorbing everything. Health is one area where enormous changes are happening rapidly—so enormous and so rapidly that some argue that current regulatory schemes and professional practices are fast growing obsolete.

A Politico event earlier this week, sponsored by Philips, and dedicated to the issue of “connected health,” provided a forum for leaders in government, business, and academia to assess the current state of affairs in health and to address the obstacles to bringing new smart medical technology into the mainstream. The context: an aging population, a growing emphasis on preventative care, and the rapid advance of big data—and how all of this is upending the medical profession and infrastructure. 

According to University of Virginia’s David C. Gordon, what is different now is that telemedicine services can be brought to hitherto isolated, rural communities that do not have the benefit of cutting-edge medical institutions nearby or whose members lack the resources to travel the distances necessary to receive treatment. Thanks to smart technologies and cloud storage, patients can take advantage of more and more medical services anywhere (such as in the home) and share their records and diagnostics in real time with the relevant medical professional, caretaker, or family member. Medical decision-making is less and less beholden to the physical and figurative medical bureaucracy. These changes, of course, are not regionally specific, but are bringing medical services to communities in developing nations and transforming medical practices everywhere. According to Professor Gordon, the goal is not to overburden medical treatment with new technology, but rather to take advantage of new tools – smart devices, data analytics, ubiquitous computing -- that enable technology to recede into the background, letting the person-to-person relationships emerge. However, obstacles remain. For example, not all medical record systems are digitized, consolidated, or connected to the same data highway; the technology is there, but the connectivity isn’t.

Qualcomm’s Robert Jarrin rightly emphasized that what is different now is the ubiquity of computing and smart devices, which has the potential to connect more and more people to the medical infrastructure. Implicit in Jarrin’s remarks is that, as Qualcomm knows better than anyone, the ubiquity of computing is producing enormous quantities of data—“big data”—which offer troves of information that enable these new technologies to provide medical services on site and in real time. This, Jarrin noted, will, among other things, cut down on over-crowding and over-admittance challenges at hospitals and emergency rooms.

Chase Feiger, of Wearable Intelligence, pointed out that new smart devices allow the consolidation of the many and increasingly varied medical data onto a single platform, accessible in real time to doctors and nurses, for example on portable visual displays. This, among other things, obviates inefficiencies in current medical systems, since doctors no longer need to, say, wait for records to be processed, updated, and retrieved—and instead can access medical records in real time from anywhere. This then allows doctors to spend more time with patients and less time searching through computers.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS’) Karen DeSalvo emphasized that the past five years have witnessed enormous progress in the integration of new technology into the medical profession, pointing out that technology is now changing not only the business side of medicine, but also the patient side. In particular, services can be provided to people otherwise cut off from the medical infrastructure, for economic or geographic reasons, and technology is already improving quality and efficiency everywhere.

Resistance to this transformation, not only among patients, but also among doctors and medical professionals continues to present an obstacle. However, according to Dr. DeSalvo, when presented with the obvious and concrete benefits yielded by new technologies in the face of mounting medical challenges—as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where Dr. DeSalvo pioneered the promotion of health information technology prior to joining the HHS—doctors are increasingly warming to the idea. She stressed that general and standardized “rules of engagement” are still needed for the “data highway,” which is increasingly connecting patients to the health-information ecosystem.

But those in attendance were eager to hear whether and when these new technologies and services would be made even more affordable and how. No one on the panel had a one word answer. Many operational challenges remain, e.g., it was pointed out that medical services will have to be integrated into current medical programs, such as Medicaid, so that they will be reimbursable like extant services. Meanwhile, all of this costs money and the problems vexing health and medicine are legion. There certainly will be no cure all.

The panel ended with a final and unanswered question: how is today different? 

Telemedicine, a term that has been around for over thirty years, is hardly a new concept. Is technology finally catching up? Will new smart medical technologies be the first to solve the various and sundry challenges facing healthcare today? Or will they wind up on the cutting room floor? This, perhaps, should have been the opening question, not its ending note. 

But today is different. These data-driven medical tools and services are among many new innovations piggy-backing on the emerging data economy, which promises to lower costs even further as computing and data storage grow cheaper and ubiquitous. Data-driven health care is not an isolated phenomenon, to be evaluated on the basis of solving this or that particular problem; rather, it is part of a new and exploding socio-economic paradigm—big data—which is changing everything. What we are seeing is the transformation of the medical industry into an information industry. This transformation will doubtless produce new challenges along with its myriad benefits. This is why an answer to the question “how is today different?” is needed if sound policies are to follow. Regulators should keep in mind that these new services are fueled by economic innovation happening outside the Beltway. We have yet to see if the revolution in data technology, of which data-driven health is one key aspect, will be complemented or curtailed by a corresponding change in health policy.