EHR: Big Data to the Rescue?

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“It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s… BIG DATA!”

If you’re in the Healthcare IT loop, then you can probably sense the almost superhero-like awe associated with the concept of “Big Data”.

ehr big data to the rescue

Electronic Health Records, if used correctly, can be valuable tools in creating a wealth of electronic patient information called Big Data, a buzzword being thrown around quite a bit these days in Health IT circles. According to professional analysts and bloggers, Big Data is the banner under which the Health IT vanguard will lead our society to a brighter, Utopian vision of patient-focused healthcare. Despite concerns that the cost of electronic health records may be raising the nation’s medical bills, it’s the expected payoff of Big Data (assuming standardized EHR-use) that keeps the vanguard going forward.

So what exactly is “Big Data,” and how does your hospital or practice fit into this larger vision for healthcare’s future? Is all the hype really worth your valuable time and resources?

Big Data’s Origin Story

Radioactive spider bite? Nope.

According to Healthcare IT’s index, Big Data is:

“A term used for massive amounts of information that can be interpreted by analytics to provide an overview of trends or patterns.”

Basically, it’s massive amounts of information aggregated from multiple sources to create a pool of… well, data. The name is pretty intuitive. Big Data is common in other industries, but has recently become more and more prominent in healthcare research.

According to an interview with Jake Porway, founder of Datakind, more data will be created in the next two years than in the history of human record-keeping. Data is touching everyone’s lives now. But healthcare is not quite there yet. While there are already waves upon waves of data, there needs to be better ways to manage it and make it usable for clinicians.

Even small practices who use EHR’s most basic functions are contributing to this tidal wave of data creation. Hopefully in the coming years, that information will be used in more effective and innovative patient care than ever before.

Big Data’s Superpowers

What exactly can Big Data do?

In an article published by the New York Times, Peter Jaret explains how Big Data from EHRs has the ability to confirm or refute hypotheses, which allows medical practitioners to quickly analyze the kinds of research questions that often come up in a clinical practice. Randomized clinical trials (RCTs) are the gold standard for clinical research, but they have two weaknesses: numbers and time. Three quarters of investigators fail to enroll the target number of subjects; even the most successfully-run trials take, from conception to final analysis and publication, six to eight years to complete. Big Data can accelerate these trials. Based on their criteria for the data, investigators can evaluate a study’s feasibility and ensure there are enough eligible participants available. Data mining can also accelerate clinical trials by helping recruit the eligible patients for the trial more quickly.

Big Data contributes to increased post-marketing pharmacovigilance (a large word I couldn’t resist using). Pharmacovigilance means that new side-effects or adverse effects of a drug can be more quickly and easily detected in populations where the drug has been administered. For example, a recent report by Dr. Russ B. Altman and Dr. Nicholas Tatonetti detected a significant increase in blood sugar in patients who simultaneously took Paxil, an antidepressant, and Pravastatin, a cholesterol-lowering drug. When taken alone, neither of these drugs produced this side effect. The two doctors were able to conduct the study entirely with data already mined from three different research hospitals.

“We didn’t need to set up a clinical trial,” Dr. Altman said to the New York Times, “We didn’t need to enroll a single research subject.”

Research conducted primarily through Big Data cannot replace RCTs. However, it does open up new possibilities and a broader field of knowledge than ever before. It’s a question of quantity versus quality of data collected. RCTs have very controlled, scientifically-gathered information. It serves a different need in the medical research community. Big Data, on the other hand, provides a lot of information very quickly. It’s like the Incredible Hulk of healthcare IT tools- less controlled but, when directed, extremely effective.

“With Great Power comes Great Responsibility.”

And that phrase doesn’t just apply to Spiderman. Currently, the largest outcry against Big Data is a concern for privacy. Like Batman in The Dark Knight, there’s some concern that Big Data has too much potential to violate the privacy of citizens and patients alike.

De-identification seems necessary to protect patients, without detracting from the larger pool of patient data. This is an imperfect solution, however, because there’s always the danger of the same patient appearing in multiple databases, which would throw off the data’s credibility. Improvements are ongoing in this area of healthcare informatics.

Most experts seem to agree that the gains from Big Data outweigh the risks. And there’s no going back now from data mining now. Data is part of how we use technology now, and it’s going to be difficult to ignore in the coming years–especially given all the good it can provide.

Be a Hero

How can you help Big Data save the world of healthcare? By installing an EHR, of course. More importantly, make sure that the EHR you install has HIE (Health Information Exchange) capabilities. An HIE is the key to achieving the vision of Big Data. Being connected to an HIE means that your practice can start pushing the data out into the healthcare community. On a local level, HIEs are important for the health and convenience of the patient, so patient data can be transferred from primary care physician to a specialist (and vice versa), which cuts back on redundant information and tests. This small-scale interoperability will pave the way for the large-scale cloud storage that will be necessary for Big Data to reach its full potential. HIE emphasizes EHR’s collaborative abilities. Collaboration is the name of Big Data’s game in healthcare.

Help Big Data sock it to the villain and pave the way to better healthcare!

Looking for Electronic Medical Records software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Electronic Medical Records software solutions.

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About the Author


Molly Earner

Molly Earner is a software analyst for Capterra, a company that loves connecting buyers and sellers of business software. When she's not writing about medical software, you can find her on the soccer field or marathoning episodes of The X-Files.


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