The Healthcare Data Decade: Being Ready for What Comes Next

Read how COVID-19 has become a catalyst for digital transformation in healthcare.

By David Dimond, Healthcare Chief Innovation Officer, Dell Technologies

It happened so fast, if you blinked you might have missed it.

Before the pandemic set in, healthcare data was being generated but not fully captured and integrated for a complete diagnostic view of a patient. For technical, security, and patient-privacy reasons, medical data was generally inaccessible to anyone but authorized users providing direct care.

All of that changed when COVID-19 arrived. Almost overnight, there was unprecedented demand for greater collection of patient data and its aggregation, along with the will to refine the regulatory barriers preventing the sharing of anonymized data. Finally, the global urgency and singular purpose to understand this novel virus swept away unhelpful constraints and bureaucracy.

As such, the volume, variety, and velocity of data have soared. Data has been liberated to both inform and proliferate, as a result of increased testing, imaging, and even genomic studies.

The influx of patients has also expanded medical data volumes. Given that each patient represents a wealth of unique data, immense activity is underway to mine this data and find correlations, so even small clues, when pieced together, can result in ground-breaking discoveries.

And of course, the way healthcare-life sciences organizations store and archive data have taken leaps forward. Because there was such a gap in our understanding of the virus, anything and everything is now being captured and archived for future use.

Research Data on the Rise

As the world rallied to respond to the pandemic crisis, hospitals and healthcare systems teamed up with researchers and life sciences organizations to recruit patients for what is now 4,800 active clinical trials.

To complement this, there has been rapid growth in medical research sharing platforms which are rich with collaborative research data. One of these–sponsored by Dell Technologies–is COVID Authors which contains searchable online profiles of more than 300,000 researchers who have written more than 80,000 scientific articles related to COVID-19. The benefits are substantial. The platform helps policymakers find experts around the world by research topic or geographic region. It also enables funding agencies to track the impact of their investments into COVID-19 research and it makes research dynamically available to hospital operations teams looking to inject new data sources into research cycles for early outbreak detection or contact tracing, for example.

Data With Big Plans for the Future

While it’s patently clear that the global healthcare industry has made Herculean steps forward in the face of colossal pressure, we probably won’t know exactly how far and how wide it went for some time to come. However, based on our Digital Transformation Index, we do know this: 84 percent of healthcare execs say they have relied on data and intelligent technologies as a source of insight during the pandemic—presumably enabled by the 75 percent of healthcare respondents that state they have fast-tracked at least some digital transformation this year (of which 43 percent have accelerated remote patient care and diagnosis).

The big question for healthcare now is whether this trend with data will last. It depends on how close you are to the generator of the data through patient interaction and insurance reimbursement for virtual care episodes. In our Taking the Pulse data management survey from September 2020, 82 percent of IT decision-makers predict that over the next three to five years pharmaceutical companies will increasingly use healthcare data to develop new drugs for patients with rare diseases. Ninety percent think healthcare providers will use this data to create customized treatment plans that take everything from genetics to lifestyle into account.

Taking New Tools To Impact

The pandemic may have ushered in a new technological age in healthcare, but much of the groundwork was laid in advance. Essentially, the ignition may have been sudden, but the fuel was already in the tank. The spark was telehealth which had existed for years (even though usage was still niche), as well as next-generation digital medical imaging solutions and mobile app-enabled devices which have been coming to market steadily.

With these technologies being used at scale–providing the ability to accelerate now–there are many opportunities to make a lasting impact, such as:

  1. More data points can lead to a more complete understanding of a patient’s condition. Using intelligent monitoring devices, care providers can remotely gather large amounts of near-real-time data. Instead of making decisions and recommendations according to limited data points obtained during office visits, modern analytics platforms can simultaneously measure thousands of data points remotely for a more complete and holistic picture of a patient’s status, resulting in better patient outcomes.
  2. Accurate information can lead to earlier diagnoses and reduce readmissions. Unlike information provided by patients, which can be subjective and is usually imprecise–continuous, objective data collected using virtual care solutions can facilitate early and timely diagnoses. This can help prevent readmissions, and since the healthcare facility can house the data and integrate it with EHRs, it can also be extremely useful in determining the best possible care option for the patient if future readmission is necessary.
  3. Remote care technology can help mitigate staff shortages. The World Health Organization anticipates that even with a 10 percent increase in the global healthcare workforce by 2030, there will still be a shortage of nearly 18 million healthcare workers due to population growth, aging people, and shifting disease patterns. Remote care technologies can help address this shortage with new approaches to patient engagement and the ability to leverage automated systems that can free staff from more manual, administrative tasks.
  4. Virtual care does not need to heighten the risk of a cyber-attack. It’s normally considered that expanding virtual health, or any health technology means expanding your attack surface. But healthcare providers can now develop smarter armory to safeguard patient data and hospital administrative data. Techniques like high-granularity automatic fingerprinting and contextual anomaly detection at the sensor level can help, as well as analytics engines to track malicious activity.

Placing Data Irrevocably Center Stage

Never before has the curation and analysis of medical data been poured over on primetime TV, across the news, social media, and the like. Never before have politicians, scientists, and business leaders been so focused on the availability and value of medical data. Our answer to treating patients and bringing the virus under control is entirely dependent on more information and insight that can only be gleaned by data and sharing this data.

COVID-19 has pushed the industry to adapt and innovate in historic new ways. As a corollary, many are poised to accelerate beyond the disruptions of the past year. We are now glimpsing the outline of what a data-driven healthcare system will look like. With the right industry partnerships and collaborations, I believe these outlines will be filled in and take on new three-dimensional shapes and shades as we progress through the data decade.