Big data in healthcare: the US experience and potential for Australia

By Chief Medical Adviser, Meredith Makeham.

In this technologically advanced age, we are able to draw knowledge from many interesting sources which were not previously available to us.

As they are increasingly integrated into healthcare, electronic and digital technologies enable the collection of increasing amounts of data. Data which we are able to translate into knowledge, to help us make more informed decisions, and to improve the quality of services.

Professor Atul Butte, of the Stanford School of Medicine reminded us that within “mounds of data is knowledge that could change the life of a patient, or change the world.”

Niall Brennan recently visited the Australian Digital Health Agency, and talked to us about the US experience with big data which he took part in. As the former Chief Data Officer for the US Medicare and Medicaid services, he oversaw the releases of large amounts of data that identified clinicians’ billing patterns and prescribing trends, but preserved patient privacy.

Niall’s primary reason for wanting these data released was transparency, which can accelerate change and improve the quality of healthcare. For example, in the US, the billing patterns indicated when practitioners may have been over-servicing patients to reach a certain funding threshold, or curtailing additional services beyond the threshold. Moreover, prescribing patterns gave valuable patient safety information about certain medications. International collaboration in digital health services and technology is an important way to accelerate Australia’s ability to translate cutting edge research and policy developments into a reality for our system.

And by examining health data, we can look for patterns that reveal better treatment options for people with particular health conditions. Balancing this with our need to protect people’s privacy and give them options to choose with whom their information is shared will require careful planning and broad consultation. But it’s a conversation worth having to improve our health system and the care and wellbeing of people in Australia.

Meredith Makeham is the Chief Medical Adviser at the Australian Digital Health Agency. You can follow Meredith on Twitter @MeredithMakeham.