In 2003, the Human Genome Project was declared complete – a process that began in 1990 involving the analysis of the three billion nucleotide base pairs making up our DNA. Today, the entire process can be achieved in a single week. This is all due to big data and the growth of healthcare informatics and technology.1
The world of today contains exceptionally large amounts of digital information used to create, analyze and improve things that could never have been imagined before.
A report completed by the International Data Corporation (IDC) predicts the amount of healthcare data in circulation will jump from 153 exabytes (one exabyte equals a billion gigabytes) in 2013 to 2,314 exabytes by 2020.2
Healthcare informatics – the process of gathering big data in the form of electronic health records (EHRs) of millions of patients – has led to miraculous discoveries and improvements, such as the Human Genome Project.
What is healthcare informatics?
Healthcare informatics uses big data to drive meaningful efforts towards improving human health. It takes collections of data one step further where healthcare information is used to create meaning. This is achieved through the use of healthcare information technology – computerized systems used to securely exchange health information between consumers and providers, improve medical care, increase efficiency, reduce error, lower costs and improve patient relationships and satisfaction.3
Healthcare Informatics professionals play an important role in partnering health with information technology; a relationship necessary to grow this age-old industry. The career itself is said to increase in demand by 20% between 2010 and 20204 with more than 56,000 jobs being created by 2024.5
Healthcare informatics includes various sub-disciplines like:
Biomedical informatics (BMI) is used interchangeably with the term healthcare informatics.
The term biomedical informatics was first used in 2012 in an American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) Board white paper. It’s defined in this white paper as:
“The interdisciplinary field that studies and pursues the effective uses of biomedical data, information, and knowledge for scientific inquiry, problem-solving and decision making, motivated by efforts to improve human health.”6
There are three broad ranges of the BMI spectrum specifically. These are:
- The microscopic atoms and cells that form organs.
- The organs coming together to form a body of an individual who is the subject of clinical and healthcare informatics.
- The individual as part of a community within the world which is a focus of public and global healthcare informatics.
Using biomedical informatics or, more simply, using patient’s healthcare information to make better future decisions is not a groundbreaking and recent discovery, but rather has been used since ancient civilizations. Healers have used medical data in the form of patient’s vital signs like body temperature, heart rate and pulse rate to inform their diagnosis and treatment for many years. Biomedical informatics simply takes this to a greater level by using computer science to utilize medical data that has been captured using healthcare information technology.
What kind of data is captured?
EHRs or electronic health records is a term covering the different kinds of data gathered through healthcare informatics. The emergence of these has led to the movement from paper records to digital records. According to a 2016 report completed by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, 96% of hospitals and 78% of physicians in the United States have a certified EHR.7
The type of data being collected for EHRs include:8
- Administrative and billing data
- Patient demographics
- Progress notes
- Vital signs
- Medical histories
- Patient diagnoses
- Prescribed medications
- Immunization dates
- Radiology images
- Test results
An EHR is the collection of this information in a comprehensive and readable way so a patient’s health information is easily accessible. This information is then shared with other healthcare professionals ensuring it’s accessible to any healthcare practitioner regardless of the time or location.
So, what’s the impact?
Below are three ways in which data captured through the means of biomedical or healthcare informatics is used to better the healthcare system:
1) Patients creating their own data collection
Fitbit is in and Rolex is out.
If you look at the wrists of a group of individuals in a room, it’s likely more than half will be sporting a wireless-enabled activity tracker, or have an app on their phone with the same function.
Statistics predict more than 830 million people will be wearing these devices in the year 2020 – a huge jump from 325 million in 2016.9
From heart-rate monitors to calorie counters to sleep trackers, these wearable technology devices create a large amount of data to be uploaded to your mobile device and computer. It’s possible you’ll soon be making this collection of data accessible to your doctor in order to receive the most appropriate treatment from a holistic perspective. This big data also holds the potential to prevent future ailments or illnesses by means of comparison. A data bank will allow all patients’ data to be compared to spot patterns that may be indicating a potential threat or outbreak.
These devices may also form a part of telemedicine, which is the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients using telecommunications technology – something that could be proven essential, especially in rural or distant areas.
2) Big data and pharmaceutical informatics
Data-sharing between pharmaceutical companies not only informs the medication prescribed to you by your GP but also has led to medical breakthroughs. An example of this is when a data analysis led to the discovery that antidepressant Desipramine has the potential to cure certain types of lung cancer.10
Pharmacy informatics also has allowed for the personalization of prescriptions. A patient’s data is now being used to tailor certain medicines to suit their unique genetic makeup or blueprint. This is done by comparing individuals’ data with millions of others to predict their illness and prescribe a treatment most suited to them as an isolated human being.11
3) Reducing costs, errors, and wastage
According to a Johns Hopkins University eight-year study, medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in the United States.12
Healthcare informatics decreases diagnosis and treatment error by making data easily accessible at the time of prescription. Therefore, a medical practitioner is aware of a patient’s entire history before any decision is made. These routines become automated, which in turn saves the healthcare industry and patients costs, specifically those that would have come about when retaking tests.
There is evidence that systems using information technology and big data prevent medication errors. A study completed by the British Journal of Clinical Psychology has proven hospitals with automated notes, records, and order have fewer complications, lower costs and even lower mortality rates.13
Healthcare informatics and patient safety
A number of professionals have celebrated healthcare informatics for the role it plays in reducing the chance of medical error, but with the amount of information being gathered about patients, the safety and protection of this data is a valid concern.
Medical professionals appreciate the value that comes with EHRs, giving them easy access to ensure patient safety and maximize efficiency. However, what’s important is not everyone and anyone has access to this kind of information. Healthcare information technology has led to the formation of computerized decision support systems that can and has been proven to improve patient safety.14 Computers now have big data processing capacity being utilized to assist in safe clinical decision-making.
An example of this is a computerized decision support system that allows for physician order entry (POE) at a hospital in Utah. This system successfully reduces orders for drugs that specific patients had allergic or adverse reactions to, and reduced incidences of adverse drug events related to antibiotic administration by 75%.15
In terms of data protection, the introduction of simple methods like requiring username and password entry has allowed for administrative and logical controls to be in place. Currently, regulatory processes such as the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) allow for heavy penalization when it comes to electronic breaches.
Discover how to use big data to improve human health
Study the healthcare informatics online short course with the University of Chicago