By Hjalmer Danielson

November 11, 2013 -- "Big data" is a buzzword you'll be seeing a lot over the next few years as your hospital managers and healthcare vendors incorporate it into their business development activities. Your health system will need to understand the term and determine how it applies to your organizational healthcare IT vision and patient care initiatives.

NASA researchers coined the term big data in 1967 to describe the enormous amount of information being generated by supercomputers. It has evolved to include all data streaming from various sources -- cellphones, mobile devices, satellites, Google, Amazon, and Twitter, for example -- along with the waves of patterns flowing within these data streams.

The impact of big data may be profound, and it will have far-reaching implications for medical imaging as healthcare tracks, manages, utilizes, and reports relevant patient information. Once you have survived the avalanche of articles and product pitches focused on healthcare/patient big-data transformation, the daunting task is to determine how you will strategically collect, store, safeguard, and then make the data actionable.

Data collection can require a tremendous amount of time and effort. Once aggregated, the information can be used in two ways: The first is that it can sit idly by as costs soar to maintain it in a viable storage archive. The second option is that it can be put to use in several ways, including the following:

  • To improve early detection, diagnosis, and treatment
  • To predict patient prognoses; aggregated data are used to spot early warning signs and mobilize resources to proactively address care
  • To increase interoperability and interconnectivity of healthcare (i.e., health information exchanges)
  • To enhance patient care via mobile health, telemedicine, and self-tracking or home devices

Let's hope you take the latter course of action!

With big data comes big responsibility

Not to be a buzzkill, but here's a healthy warning: Ensuring patient data privacy and security is a significant challenge for any healthcare organization seeking to comply with the new HIPAA omnibus rule. Any individual or organization that accesses, uses, or discloses protected health information (PHI) must comply, and this includes employees, physicians, vendors or other business associates, and other covered entities.

Consider also that your HIPAA compliance for data (small or big) must cover the following systems, processes, and policies:

  • Registration systems
  • Patient portals
  • Patient financial systems
  • Electronic medical records
  • E-prescribing
  • Business associate and vendor contracts
  • Audits
  • Notice of privacy practice

How your organization manages and accurately utilizes big data is going to be crucial, considering efforts underway with vendor-neutral archives (VNAs). But we digress ...

How many bytes does your VNA produce?

Here are some terms to consider as you dream of data: A bit is a single unit of digital information (either a 1 or 0), a byte is typically a sequence of eight bits, and a megabyte is 1,000,000 bytes (equivalent to a small novel). A terabyte (TB) is 1,000,000,000,000 bytes (10 TB is equal to all printed material in the U.S. Library of Congress), and an exabyte is a whole lot of bytes and currently what we collectively create in two days.

One of the most compelling examples of big data utilization and communication in healthcare comes from Dr. Hans Rosling, professor of international health at the Karolinska Institute. In the short video below, he is able to convey an enormous amount of health- and income-related information collected over 200 years, and he shows the power of its projections into the future!

Think of how this might be applied to building your medical imaging vision and how it might change your strategies as you move forward.

Hjalmer Danielson is a director at Ascendian Healthcare Consulting and a frequent contributor on the subject of health information technology. You can contact him directly at hdanielson@ascendian.com or visit the Ascendian website for more information.


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