Within hospitals, system officials will have the capacity to quickly analyze variations in practice patterns, determine what works best, and encourage practitioners to make adjustments that improve patient outcomes. Officials can pinpoint the causes of high readmission rates, spot medication errors and identify and better manage high-cost patients.
More broadly, the era of big data allows providers and payers to merge their de-identified patient records into huge cloud-based databases. Given access to this trove of information, researchers could run retrospective clinical trials, conduct comparative effectiveness research and analyze the real world outcomes of highly touted technologies to see if they actually lived up to their promise.
No area will benefit more from the era of big data than oncology. Nearly 200 forms of cancer strike more than 1.2 million Americans every year and cause more than 500,000 deaths. Yet no one collects or analyzes the outcomes from the varying treatment regimens that people receive.
Earlier this month, Public Health England announced it would begin collecting and genetically analyzing tumor samples while tracking treatment regimens and outcomes for every single cancer patient in its National Health Service. The database will allow researchers to analyze how every cancer sub-type responds to different regimens, and adjust future treatments accordingly.
So what is happening here? A few years ago, the National Cancer Institute formed a Cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid (CaBIG) to collect similar information. But the effort fell apart because few institutions chose to participate, and the agency lost interest.
The American Society of Clinical Oncology, the oncologists' professional society, recently announced its own data-mining effort for breast cancer with 150,000 medical records. That's a pittance compared to the quarter million American women newly diagnosed with breast cancer every year.
Not every federal agency has fumbled the ball. The Food and Drug Administration launched its Sentinel project, which is collecting more than 125 million patient drug records to look for safety problems in approved drugs. Project managers are already churning out studies.