What if one of the biggest breakthroughs in medicine lies in the 1’s and 0’s tucked away in some database stored in a virtual server thousands of miles away?
If you think that idea sounds far-fetched, you’re missing out on the Big Data ship that’s sailing through the healthcare industry right now.
In 2011, a McKinsey & Company report helped sound the bell for Dr. Big Data’s arrival:
If US healthcare were to use big data creatively and effectively to drive efficiency and quality, the sector could create more than $300 billion in value every year.
Some two years later, we’re now starting to see activity to support this broad and ambitious goal.
One of the biggest opportunities with leveraging Big Data and analytics tools for health lies in the field of personalized medicine, which takes into account a person’s genetic blueprint and family medical history.
Angelina Jolie recently made headlines when she announced she’d had a double mastectomy after tests revealed  she carries a genetic variant that predisposes her to breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
1eq , a health startup based in Washington, D.C., wants to make that sort of genomic health insight available to more people through mobile devices.
“The opportunity [with Big Data] is to take a very holistic picture in connecting all the dots and helping people live healthier lives,” says 1eq co-founder Anish Sebastian. “Once people start using 1eq to consolidate their health data, their primary care physician will start seeing value in it.”
Doctors traditionally take broad recommendations and apply them to patients, but those recommendations are not always a perfect fit. Diabetes is one example where Big Data and personalized analytics could have a meaningful impact on a patient’s life, because a person’s general health plays a huge role in determining risk factors for the disease.
“If you're a marathon runner and you had a 90 percent risk for diabetes, your risks are changing,” says 1eq co-founder Juan Pablo Segura.
To create a meaningful, interactive and mobile dashboard of your health, 1eq partners with Anne Wojcicki’s 23andMe  to conduct an analysis of your DNA. Once that’s complete, 1eq incorporates this data into its dashboard and syncs it with environmental and behavioral algorithms to make targeted recommendations to the user.
“Our focus is that you're seeing value and making sure you see information that's useful,” says Segura.
The company, which was recently accepted  into the StartUp Health and GE Healthymagination Entrepreneurship Program, plans on launching a public beta of its service in July.
While it’s true that analytics can reshape the way healthcare operates at an individual level, companies are hard at work trying to figure out how to leverage Big Data to improve health at the population level, too.
One of the more daunting challenges facing the healthcare industry involves data sharing and collaboration. Part of this has to do with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which places heavy restrictions on the sharing of patient data; the other part of has to do with the fact that the data simply go uncollected.
IBM, which has been one of the leading companies in the Big Data space, recently announced a partnership with the Premier Healthcare Alliance and four healthcare systems to form the Data Alliance Collaborative (DAC), according to a report from InformationWeek :
This infrastructure is a kind of advanced data warehouse, based on the IBM Netezza data warehousing appliance. Some DAC members have either never had a data warehouse before or have repositories that are narrowly focused on particular kinds of information, [senior VP of healthcare informatics for Premier Healthcare Alliance Keith J.] Figlioli said.
Much of the interest in Big Data and healthcare is occurring at hospitals. The high influx of patients and the life-and-death impact of hospital care make achieving positive outcomes a top priority.
While doctors and medical associations try to adhere to standards and practices, the best caregivers often get by on reputation and subjective variables, such as legacy prestige. But with the help of Big Data, healthy outcomes will become more of a data-driven, objective result, according to a report from the dallasnews :
“Whether you survive or not is going to be far more objectively determined than it is today,” said Daniel Varga, the chief clinical officer for Arlington-based Texas Health Resources. Reputations and market share won’t mean as much as they have in the past. Survival will depend upon results. Using Big Data, providers hope to improve those results.
There’s a lot riding on Big Data, and it’ll take some time to truly harness its potential, but in the future, it looks like Big Data could help clear up some of the guesswork that goes into practicing healthcare.