Pharmacy: Harnessing the power of big data

Pharmacy field beginning to capitalize on big data to improve care quality, reduce costs

"Big data” is a buzzword skyrocketing in popularity. It refers to the exponential growth and availability of structured and unstructured data. Financial companies, retailers, telecommunication firms, and Web service providers have leveraged big data for years to improve sales and gather customer information. Now the field of pharmacy is beginning to capitalize on big data to improve care quality and reduce costs.

Targeted therapy

The health care field is chock-full of data, including lab results, imaging results, physician notes, nursing notes, pharmacist notes, prescriptions, allergy information, a patient’s medical and medication history, medication lists, and more.

“The goal is [to use big data] to improve treatment options and [make them] patient specific,” said Karla M. Miller, PharmD, Assistant Vice President of Pharmacy Services and Clinical Therapeutics for Hospital Corporation of America (HCA) Clinical Services Group in Nashville, during a session at the 2014 American Society of Health-System Pharmacists Summer Meeting. Big data is often defined by the three Vs: volume, velocity, and variety. Other dimensions of big data include variability and complexity. The concept of big data has been popular among consumer-facing companies, but with advances in technology and widespread implementation of electronic health records, “you have the rise of big data in health care,” said Miller. “There is a lot of buzz about how big data [are] a new frontier for health care.”

Grocery stores capitalize on big data every day when consumers swipe their discount card during checkout. This gives grocery stores a lot of information about you, and “then you get a coupon in the mail when your peanut butter is going to run out,” said Miller. “This is exactly where we’re going with big data in health care.” The idea is to give patients targeted therapy based on their lifestyle, disease state, and other medical information.

Uses in health care

Miller highlighted several examples where big data are already being used in the health care industry. She pointed out that Google Flu Trends uses aggregated Google search data to estimate influenza activity in the United States. The program analyzes certain search terms that are good indicators of influenza. The program “compiles the flu information, and it’s pretty accurate at predicting where we’ll see spikes in flu before the physicians and outpatient practices and clinics see the spike,” said Miller. “It’s an excellent example of using big data to alert the health care community about what’s to come.”

Another example of big data in health care is a company called CardioDx, Inc., which used big data to develop a genetic blood test to identify patients who are at risk for coronary artery disease. The test allows physicians to quickly identify those patients who have serious heart problems and saves healthy patients from having to undergo unnecessary and expensive invasive testing. “Once again, this is [based on] the use of very large data,” Miller added.

She also pointed out Explorys, a Cleveland Clinic spinoff company with a goal of tying together health care data from various providers, payers, and care settings to better integrate care. Explorys includes more than 275 billion clinical, financial, and operational data elements from 48 million patients, 340 hospitals, and more than 300,000 providers to help identify treatment and outcome patterns.

Data challenges

One of the biggest challenges of using big data in health care is the sheer volume of data. At HCA where Miller works, around 165 hospitals and 115 surgery centers are in 20 states and England. “We’re talking about 120 petabytes of data. How do you make that meaningful?” said Miller. “How do you manage that amount, store that amount, and keep it safe?”

Another challenge is speed. Physicians and health care workers “need to make decisions fast, [and they need] the right information quickly,” she said.

According to Miller, the secret to using big data effectively is figuring out how to take the volume of data we have, the real-time need for data, and the variety of data—the structured and unstructured information—and using it to improve both the quality and the business model of health care.

Stay tuned for next month’s Pharmacy Today, where we explore the pharmacist’s role in big data.