Agencies See Big Data As Cure For Healthcare Ills

Federal healthcare agencies believe big data will improve the nation's health -- but few are prepared to use it, a study finds.
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Two-thirds of federal executives working in healthcare-focused agencies believe that big data will improve population health management and preventive care. But even though feds report in a new study that they must tap into emerging technologies such as wireless health devices and machine-to-machine monitoring systems, only a small percentage of government agencies have implemented them.

According to the findings, 63% of federal IT professionals feel that big data will help track and manage population health more efficiently, 62% view big data as a way to significantly improve patient care within military health and Veterans Affairs (VA) systems, and 60% believe big data will improve how preventive care is delivered.

The US government plays a dominant role in healthcare. The VA, for instance, operates the nation's largest integrated healthcare system, with more than 1,700 hospitals. The National Institutes of Health invests $30 billion annually in medical research.

The study, "The Big Data Cure," by EMC and the government IT networking group MeriTalk (registration required), surveyed 150 executives within federal agencies focused on healthcare and healthcare research.

[Big data may not be enough to fix what ails state healthcare exchanges. Read State Health Insurance Exchanges Still Sick.]

More than half (59%) of the respondents said that in five years, fulfilling their agency's mission objectives will depend on the successful use of big data.

As agencies adopt big data, they are turning to emerging technologies, such as mobile health (mHealth) and machine-to-machine (M2M) technology. mHealth uses mobile and wireless devices to improve health outcomes, healthcare services, and health research. M2M entails machines communicating to collect, monitor, or store healthcare information.

According to the report, 37% of feds are already utilizing mHealth systems. But IT professionals view M2M technologies as having the greatest impact on improving patient care and remote patient monitoring. Though only 15% have implemented M2M technologies, 53% plan to do so within the next two years. Security was cited as the biggest challenge when deploying M2M.

On the flip side, fewer than one in five feds said their agency is very prepared to work with big data. When asked what steps they have taken to get ready to use big data, 52% said they've invested in IT infrastructure to increase data storage, 43% have enhanced cybersecurity, 35% have invested in systems and tools to boost data processing, 35% have modernized backup and recovery, 25% have invested in a private cloud and 15% in a public cloud, and 24% have implemented mobile device management.

The report also found that agencies have yet to make substantial progress when it comes to preparing their staff for big data. Only 29% of those surveyed have hired trained professionals to manage and analyze big data, or educated senior management on related issues.

"These technologies will offer new opportunities to analyze big and fast data, see patterns, and make accurate predictions based on these patterns. It will allow agencies to be more productive, and increase intelligence and agility," Audie Hittle, CTO of the federal market at EMC Isilon, told us in an email.

"Today, a significant portion of healthcare-focused feds feel prepared to leverage big data, but drilling down, many have yet to take critical steps to prepare for and use big data," Hittle said. "They need to understand their own data resources and how they can take advantage of them to keep up with the pace of change."

Download Healthcare IT In The Obamacare Era, the InformationWeek Healthcare digital issue on changes driven by regulation. Modern technology created the opportunity to restructure the healthcare industry around accountable care organizations, but ACOs also put new demands on IT.

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