By Alan Anderson, David Semmelroth

Healthcare is one area where big data has the potential to make dramatic improvements in the quality of life. The increasing availability of massive amounts of data and rapidly increasing computer power could enable researchers to make breakthroughs, such as the following:

  • Predicting outbreaks of diseases

  • Gaining a better understanding of the effectiveness and side effects of drugs

  • Developing customized treatments based on patient histories

  • Reducing the cost of developing new treatments

One of the biggest challenges facing the use of big data in healthcare is that much of the data is stored in independent “silos.” A data silo is a collection of data that isn’t used on a regular basis and so isn’t accessible outside of the silo. Healthcare data comes from multiple sources:

  • Public health records

  • Government databases

  • Insurance companies

  • Pharmaceutical companies

  • Patient health histories

  • Personal tracking devices

Much of the data is scattered and not readily accessible. Also, the data may be stored in many different formats — some of it still on paper! As a result, much information that could be potentially useful in some applications may be difficult and time-consuming to acquire.

Once this data has been combined properly, the potential exists to dramatically improve the analytical techniques used to diagnose patients. For example, it may eventually become possible to provide genetic sequencing for each individual patient; at the moment, this would be a prohibitively expensive and lengthy process in most cases.

Here are some other potential benefits of using big data in healthcare:

  • Increased ability of patients to monitor their own treatments

  • Improved ability of doctors to choose the best treatments for patients

  • More efficient matching of patients with the appropriate healthcare professionals

Another potential benefit comes in the area of controlling costs. As the availability of healthcare data increases, the potential for reducing costs through better preventative treatment, increased efficiency of the drug development cycle, improved monitoring of patients, and other methods appears to be quite substantial. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimated in 2011 that the potential savings could be $300 billion per year — a number that could grow over time.