The healthcare case for big data

Imagine a chip that can be inserted into a pill dispenser in a patient's home. The machine would then read the data stored in the chip and automatically dispense the required prescription.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

I recently accompanied someone to the local hospital who needed to go through a series of tests to determine the cause of an ailment. During the consult, the specialist was dishing out instructions on how to prep for the next examination. 

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The patient was taking daily medication for his high blood pressure, but would have to stop taking them in the two weeks leading up to the test as the pills could affect the results. To maintain his blood pressure at a healthy level, in the absence of his regular meds, the specialist explained he would need to take a different prescription. This would only be necessary for the two weeks before the day of the test, after which he would have to return to his regular pills.

In addition, he would have to take a blood test which required fasting from 10 o'clock the night before, as well as collect his urine for 24 hours before the day of the examination. He also needed to take a couple of pills, in two different pre-determined intervals, in the night before and morning of the test. These were suppose to protect his organs during the examination which would expose him to a some level of radiation.

As I sat in the consultation room and listened to the string of instructions meted out, I couldn't help but wonder if elderly folks--who typically make up the biggest demographics seeking healthcare services--would have problems keeping up?

Some elderly folks would need to take a daily dosage of various meds not only for high blood pressure, but also to control their cholesterol levels or manage their arthritis. Some would also need meds for diabetes or gastrointestinal disorders, or a post-cancer concoction to keep the disease in remission.

How many of them would be able to keep up with a long to-do list before they go through an examination? And in a country like Singapore where many elderly today do not use English in their daily conversation, things could potentially get lost in translation. This would be risky in healthcare where test results could be skewed, leading to inaccurate diagnoses, or worse patients could end up consuming the wrong prescription and endanger their well-being.

That day, as I sat and watched the specialist repeat his instructions over and over again, just so he was sure they were properly understood, I wondered where the hell was big data--and all its associated technologies--when we needed it.

This was a situation where machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, sensors and the Internet of Things would have been so necessary.

Imagine if the specialist could simply hand over a chip with the right prescription, which is then inserted into a pill dispenser in the patient's home. The machine would then read the data stored in the chip and automatically dispense the required prescription for the two weeks leading up to the test, including the two pills he would need to consume the night before the examination. The chip would also "communicate" the switch back to the patient's regular meds after the test had been completed, so the correct prescription would be accurately dispensed.

This leaves no chance for human error from any miscommunication or wrongly translated information.

A Web-connected blood pressure machine at the patient's home would also be able to send daily readings to a patient-profiling system at the clinic or hospital, where a staff would receive an alert should a reading hit the unhealthy range. The patient could also prick his finger into a blood-sample machine and the data could be transmitted to the doctor.

Together with telemedicine capabilities, this whole ecosystem would make healthcare services accessible to any patient, anytime, anywhere. Doctors would be able to receive the latest updates on a patient, pull up the patient's medical history from the centralized electronic health record system, and decide on the next course of action. They could also arrange for a telepresence conference to further examine the patient's physical outlook, decide if more samples are needed or whether he would need to visit the clinic for further consult.

Sounds terrifyingly like Skynet but, science-fiction horror aside, when all the necessary communication systems are networked across all devices in the home and person's life, it's an area of big data that could really offer huge value in improving healthcare.

And that's a future I wouldn't mind ageing in.


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