How Data is Improving our Health

June 25, 2019


We live in a technology driven world where big data techniques are constantly used to make improvements to many aspects of life.  Companies like Netflix use large scale datasets and advanced methods to recommend movies we might like to watch based on our viewing history or to display unique images to its millions of subscribers, enticing them to click play. Apple has developed technology which allows users to unlock their phones using facial recognition and Uber can get us anywhere we need to go at the click of a button. These examples merely scratch the surface of the many improvements to everyday life that have been achieved through the use of technology and big data. But what about our health? What is technology doing to make sure we live longer and better lives?

Health as an industry is dramatically lagging behind others in terms of applying big data technologies to improve outcomes. There are various reasons for this lack of progression, including issues with the storage, access, format and collection of health data. Given that health records are considerably more valuable to hackers than any other type, security and privacy are very valid concerns. However, there has to be a balance between the advancement of healthcare quality and security. This is steadily being realised and the use of big data is becoming a common part of health analytics.

So how can big data analytics improve our health industry?

Picture this. You are at home, suddenly a family member starts experiencing tightness and pain in their chest, neck and arms, they need to get to a hospital as soon as possible. Some hospitals are busier than others on particular days. However, you will have no idea of the waiting time until you arrive at the emergency department. D2D CRC has developed an application that provides waiting time information for all South Australian metropolitan hospitals and couples this with your current location to suggest the quickest way to receive medical attention. This gives you the choice of which emergency department to head to for the least waiting and/or travel time. Widespread use of this application would help patients receive the quickest medical attention possible as well as reduce the burden on emergency departments by spreading the load. For some situations, visiting an after-hour clinic is also an option that people often overlook, this application could help by making suggestions.

OK, so you made it to an emergency department and have been given the unfortunate news that your relative needs to have a heart procedure. More than half a million people are hospitalised for urgent and elective cardiovascular care every year. Given this volume, you would hope that the quality and outcomes from these procedures have been analysed to improve procedures and give patients an idea of their chances of recovery at various hospitals. However, cardiovascular outcomes have rarely been measured or reported as there has been no mechanism to do so. How many people survive the 30-day period after a major procedure? How many are readmitted to hospitals within 90 days? These are questions that we haven’t had answers to as yet.

D2D CRC, in collaboration with experienced cardiologists, are working on a ground-breaking study using over 100 million healthcare records from more than 1,000 hospitals, the first of its kind in Australia. The project has enabled a nationwide assessment of hospital based cardiovascular outcomes for common conditions and procedures using big data analysis. By conducting this project, we have been able to identify risk-adjusted mortality, readmission and complication rates, as well as variation in outcomes among hospitals.

These are just two examples of the many projects we are conducting in the health analytics space. Although the health industry is lagging behind, it is comforting to note that things are starting to change but there is still a long way to go. Our work in the health analytics space demonstrates how much potential for improvement in patient care exists and highlights the benefit to society. So whilst I’ll go home tonight and enjoy flicking through Netflix, I hope that soon the health industry will catch up to other industries, leading to improved patient outcomes and optimal healthcare for all.