National Institute for Healthcare Innovation's (NIHI) symposium on big data in healthcare that took place today brought together healthcare professionals, researchers, government officials and IT vendors to discuss the ways and means to make better use of big data in New Zealand's healthcare provision, and the issues such usage raises.
"Big data in healthcare is about healthcare data and what could be done, what insights can be derived from it and how it could feed into enhancement of healthcare delivery," said Dr Shahram Ebadollahi, program director of health informatics research at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center.
"Increasing adoption of electronic health records, financial pressures that are forcing dramatic changes in healthcare, the shifting area of risk from the payer to the provider, the need to identify early intervention opportunities and the growing spectre of patient generated data is driving the needs to get more information from existing data and use it effectively for providing appropriate healthcare."
Ebadollahi expanded on the need for healthcare institutions to enable knowledge-driven analytics, and how IBM's solutions, including its Watson supercomputer, can help providers in getting more of their data.
Getting on stage right after the IBM spokesperson, Professor Tony Blakely from the department of public health at the University of Otago in Wellington stressed the need for New Zealand to use better what it already has in place in terms of data collection and data pools, and cautioned against blind adoption of healthcare data plans implemented in other countries without giving them due consideration.
"New Zealand is a small country. We need to use wide data and deep data, but any initiatives have to be considered only after a proper understanding of costs and relevance for the country. We can't do everything that other countries do. We need to pick the ones we can do based on the registries we have and the population numbers in the country," said Blakely.
Blakely also stressed the need for synthesis to answer research and policy questions through modelling and for NZ health institutions to contribute data to international collaborations.
"It is also key that we learn to target and bring in the mountains of data that is out there on the internet and social media. We have to learn how to use machine learning to follow up and retrieve data from free living humans. The past of collecting data from individual sources will diminish and the move will be to use the information that is already out there," said Blakely.
Touching on the sensitive issue of data privacy Marie Shroff, NZ's privacy commissioner warned the healthcare institutions in the audience that they could be the victim of the next big breach.
"A lot of people in NZ still trust the health system, but this could literally evaporate overnight. There is a need to balance the trust of the individual patient, with the need and efficiency that can be derived from sharing of information while ensuring privacy. You have to walk the tightrope of information sharing with care," said Shroff.
She encouraged health institutions in the country to have proper agreements for sharing information and be sure of the structures that they adopt if and when such agreements fail in order to minimise the possibility of a data breach or the potential damage that could be caused by such a breach.
Other speakers at the conference included Dr Stuart Nelson, CIO at Apelon in the US and Graeme Osborne, director of the National Health IT Board
The symposium, which brought in nearly 160 people from district and national healthcare institutions, private healthcare providers and university researchers among others, was conducted in Auckland.