The Big-Data in Healthcare: challenges & opportunities

The healthcare industry is witnessing an explosive growth in the volumes of digital medical data. Advances in digital imaging technologies and electronic patient record systems, combined with federally mandated data retention and retrieval policies are presenting healthcare IT professionals with a number of new challenges related to storing, managing and providing access to its medical data. According to IDC Health Insights’ 2010 EMR  and PACS  storage  survey, storage takes up a large percentage of  overall IT budget for providers, with a large portion of outpatient  centers (50%) and hospitals (57%) allocating more than 20% of their  IT budget to storage. One of the most compelling trends observed at the IBM’s Big Data Policy Event points to the fact that the amount of data generated per hospital will increase from 167 terabytes to 665 terabytes by 2015.

In the U.S., organizations that transmit an individual’s protected health information (PHI) across Internet applications or electronic systems are required to meet Health Insurance Portability  and  Accountability  Act  of  1996  (HIPAA)  requirements. In order to be compliant, healthcare IT solution providers must design their systems and applications to meet HIPAA’s privacy and security standards and related administrative, technical, and physical safeguards. Apart from confidentiality and robust access control protocols, the other hurdles in managing medical data lie in the following areas – long-term vendor viability, continuity of care through backup & disaster recovery solutions, rapid scalability & secured migration, multi-site & enterprise wide collaboration and of course affordability in terms of real-estate and infrastructural requirements.

Cloud computing holds the promises of reduced costs, pay-as-you-go services, and improved agility, allowing organizations to leverage external IT capabilities that they may not have in-house. However when it comes to medical data the top concerns for health IT administrators are security and availability, which could be mitigated through properly architected cloud frameworks. These increased burdens augmented with higher sensitivity in handling medical data have led to the development of specialized solutions tailored for the healthcare industry, by the leading service providers in this sphere – EMC, NetAPP, Amazon, HP, Hitachi, Intel, IBM etc. An additional area of concern in the context of healthcare industry is the rapidly evolving medical technology landscape. A close example would be in the field of personalized medicine, – where the next-generation genome sequencing technologies are rapidly churning out terabytes of data during standard gene annotation experiments, clearly signaling that we are only at the beginning of healthcare’s digital information explosion.

Despite the burden associated with the enormity of these datasets, the abundance of clinical data holds the potential of changing the course of healthcare as well. With advanced data mining techniques, large chunks of data can be leveraged for the identification of disease patterns, discovery of new drugs, optimization of methods of clinical care, and efficient management of patient flow. On the other end of the spectrum are initiatives such as Global Viral Forecasting (GVF) which are continually data hungry as they harness big data to prevent global pandemics before they start!

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