When people talk about big data, there is a tendency to veer toward hyperbolic jargon and exaggerated buzzwords. But the truth is, when used in a meaningful way, big data is interesting and exciting because it can prove to have a positive, lasting impact — especially when it comes to health care.

Big data applications

Big data is already impacting everyday life. Take Amazon's suggestion engine: “People who bought this also bought that.” This is indisputably convenient and a model example of how companies use big data for business acceleration and differentiation. This illustrates how to leverage large datasets to find patterns that then inform decisions. Look to the genetic service 23andMe as another example. They are using DNA to provide insights into an individual’s potential risk of contracting certain diseases in the future — all through a low-cost consumer-facing test. These examples are just scratching the surface of the insight big data can provide. Imagine a world where these insights could impact not only how you live your life but the longevity of it? We are closer to this reality than you may realize and in some cases already there.

As health care technology advances, the already massive volume of medical research available to physicians is growing at an accelerating rate, making it virtually impossible for a busy physician to stay current on new best practice trends in care. Timely access to digestible information is critical to understand how best to diagnose and treat the patient sitting in their exam room.

Crunching the data

This “mass of data, lack of time” challenge may at first seem overwhelming — until you remember that big data can meet the need for near instantaneous analysis. The right insight at the right time can have a significant impact.

“Big data is not a panacea — yet.”

At the point of care, the use of the insights derived from big data allows providers and researchers to potentially ask and answer questions that were previously out of reach. Just last year, IBM’s Watson supercomputer analyzed 20 million cancer research papers and came up with the correct diagnosis for a leukemia patient within 10 minutes — after doctors were stumped for months. This individual, someone’s family member, now has a better chance of living a long, healthy life because of the power of big data combined with smart, passionate clinicians.

Taking this one-step further, using the power of machine learning and big data, the lessons learned from this individual patient experience can now be included in the broader global health care knowledge base to benefit similar patients and create learning opportunities for researchers. This compounded learning effect accelerates the rate at which personalized care can be delivered to individuals across global communities.

Integrating the technology

Big data is not a panacea — yet. There are a multitude of challenges ranging from cultural and ethical questions to more mundane data interoperability constraints. It will take the concerted effort of clinicians, regulators, data scientists and consumers of health care services to solve these challenges. What is certain is that they are worth solving.

We know that the proliferation of data in health care is upon us and with it brings significant challenges along with incredible opportunities to improve the lives of millions. The precise insights derived from big data in healthcare will change the way we care for ourselves, our families, our communities and our world. This is not hyperbole. It’s fact.