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Big Data Takes Turn As Storyteller, Pulls Together Health Narratives
May 27, 2016 News

Throughout our lives, without trying, we create our own health narratives.

Comprising doctors’ notes, blood tests, prescriptions, X-rays and hospital stays, the totality of these records represents a detailed account of our condition over time.

Patients and practitioners have struggled to pull together complete stories, however. Pages and chapters are strewn across doctors’ offices, clinics and homes. Some are lost altogether.

But digital technology is able to collect the pieces today, and that’s making a big difference in patients’ lives. When people see their record as a coherent whole, persuasive trends stand out, motivating many to follow doctor’s orders that might have otherwise been brushed aside. Treatment becomes more efficient and personalized.

As health information accumulates online, doctors will be able to slice and dice it in new ways with sophisticated analytics, giving technology an increasingly important role in guiding treatment.

Faster And More Accurate Care

For practitioners who have adopted electronic health records, patient information is made instantly available to everyone involved in care, improving efficiency and accuracy.

“By the time you have left the doctor’s office, the pharmacy has your prescription,” said Mark Gamble, senior director of technical marketing at OpenText, which provides technology that helps healthcare organizations make sense of disparate patient information. “There’s a common understanding among all providers about the state of your health.”

Patients can get alerts on any device, so they don’t miss taking a pill or getting to an appointment on time. They can enter information about their medical history before coming to the doctor’s office, saving time and improving the quality of the visit. During the visit, doctors can check whether or not a test has been done, avoiding duplication. If a patient forgets to mention a drug or is uncertain about the dose, the information is right there in the record.

Electronic Records Catch On

As electronic health records catch on, more patients are paying attention to them. Today 45 percent of patients access their electronic records, compared with 27 percent two years ago, according to a recent survey by the consulting company Accenture.

Patients like to see lab and test results without having to call a doctor. Respondents to the Accenture survey rated this the top benefit of electronic records, said Frances Dare, managing director of connected health services at Accenture. Reading doctors’ notes was second.

Reviewing results at their leisure, rather than glancing at images and holding brief conversations during an appointment, helps patients absorb information more deeply.

“How much do we know about what’s inside our medical records? Not much if they’re housed in a medical office,” said Jaleel Shujath, an industry strategist for life sciences at OpenText. “Having access informs patients and helps them make better decisions.”

Freedom of access also gives patients greater independence.

“They’re not blind to the information or dependent on a physician to interpret it for them,” Dr. Eric Schadt, professor and chair of genetics and genomic sciences at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, said in an interview with McKinsey & Company.

The more often people access information about their health, the more likely they are to improve it, a 2014 study by the National Partnership for Women & Families found. Seventy-one percent of patients who accessed their records online at least three times a year said they were inspired to make changes in their health regimen, compared with 39 percent who viewed them less frequently.

“I think we’re starting to see a different kind of patient-physician relationship because more information is available,” Dare said. “It makes the relationship a partnership, compared with the hierarchy of the past.”

Sharing Brings Perspective

The online environment makes transferring information easy, and some patients are sharing their health data online to help others. That’s especially true for people managing chronic diseases, who often meet in online forums.

In a survey by the online epilepsy community PatientsLikeMe, 55 percent of patients said sharing information and experiences with others helped them learn about seizures, and 27 percent said it made them diligent about taking their medications.

Using fitness trackers, such as Fitbit, patients are also collecting health information outside the medical system. The use of health apps and wearables has doubled in the past two years, the Accenture survey found.

Many patients share the information with their physicians, Dare said. When that happens, it becomes a part of their medical record.

The Next Frontier: Analysis

When medical information is stored online, it can be quantified and analyzed, helping doctors and patients spot trends. Most of these data are “structured,” existing typically as numerals.

Increasingly, providers are getting interested in examining “unstructured data,” such as doctors’ notes, Gamble said. Previously unquantifiable, this information adds a new dimension to analysis.

“If you just look at simple check boxes, you miss a lot of valuable context and subtlety,” Gamble said.

As analysis becomes more sophisticated, it will be used more to guide treatment. Some of the latest tools are using natural language processing algorithms. These algorithms compile semantics contextually to understand the subtle meaning of language — like humans do, except much more quickly and without bias.

“We’re envisioning a future in which natural language processing by artificial intelligence will correlate things like blood work or MRI results with doctors’ notes and make long-term assessments,” Shujath said. “Now we rely on doctors and nurses to evaluate and interpret information, but in the future it may be done by software.”

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