Healthcare data is reshaping medicine, and the transformation is only beginning. Until very recently, "data" as a concept hardly existed in the practice of medicine. Clinical researchers compiled data, to be sure, but the doctors who consulted their studies looked at their findings, not necessarily the data behind those findings.
The only data most physicians had about their patients were their own notes, along with whatever facts the patients remembered to report when describing their medical histories. If a patient moved or changed doctors for any reason, chances were all too good that their prior history would be lost.
Now, resources such as Epic Systems are making it practical to organize and track this formerly fragmentary patient information. Not only can medical professionals access better information about their own patients, they can gain insights into what is happening to other patients as well, allowing them to detect information that they might previously have missed.
Exit Horse and Buggy, Enter Big Data
Back in the days of horses and buggies, when doctors made house calls, the fragmentation of medical data was less of a problem. Most people rarely moved, so their medical histories did not need to follow them around. And there was less information to preserve and consult — lab results as we know them didn't exist yet. For that matter, there was not much that medical professionals could actually do about most health conditions.
As medical science revolutionized the potential for treatment, the need for reliable healthcare data dramatically increased, and the ability to manage that data lagged. Physicians don't work at desks for the most part, and conventional record keeping systems were too clumsy to use while making the rounds. Only in the last few years have technical resources emerged, such as Epic Systems, that are suited to records management in a clinical environment.
This transformation has come just in time. Medical technology has not only made healthcare more complex, it has added new expenses, so that holding down costs has become a critical issue. Doctors need to see more patients, meaning that they cannot afford to waste time tracking down fragmented records or dealing with clunky record systems.
But the healthcare data revolution is not just about doing familiar things better. It is also about doing new things. Correlations and patterns that previously would have been undetectable, buried in the notes of thousands of individual doctors, can now be brought to light using big data analytics. Tracking the spread of epidemics such as the Zika virus is a compelling example of the power of correlated data to provide healthcare insights.
Dr. Robot Calls for a Specialist
Even as the power of data is making an impact on modern healthcare, another revolution is looming. Artificial intelligence (AI) is on its way to a doctor's office or clinic near you. According to Fast Company's Sean Captain, healthcare AI is just now making the transition from studies and pilot projects to a working tool.
No, human doctors are not about to be replaced by robotic ones. But medical AI, with its ability to remember and analyze vast amounts of data, can take a big burden off of overworked physicians, nurse practitioners and other medical professionals. Venkat Rajan of research firm Frost & Sullivan told Fast Company that doctors are "stressed, they've got a million different things they're looking at, so [there's] stuff they might have missed." Medical AI will catch the little things that a busy human might not.
To take a simple but familiar situation, AIs can take over the initial questioning of patients, asking them about their symptoms and complaints, then summarize these in medical language. Doctors can then quickly hone in on key indicators and be informed at once if, for example, an unusual symptom matches reports from other doctors' patients, which can help them identify and monitor emerging epidemics.
Intelligent systems are coming to healthcare. Fueled by data, these systems have enormous potential to improve our health and well-being. The challenge for the medical IT community will be managing that data and those systems reliably and securely.