Big Data is the New Black of Tech Trends and It’s Revolutionizing our Healthcare System

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Tech industry buzzwords seem to seep into our language with fluid motion. Since 2000 we’ve been http’d, emoticon-d, cookied, virtualized, and iPod/iPad/iRevolutionized. Tech buzzwords flow freely in our culture, and crash in a frenzied mashup crescendo every year at SXSW. In 2012 “Big Data” was crowned King of the buzzwords we use but don’t quite understand. How can this be when Big Data is pointed to as the oracle of everything from consumer purchasing to political campaigns, and the revolutionary mastermind of healthcare? McKinsey calls Big Data “the next frontier for innovation, competition and productivity” – yet ask 10 people what it is, you’ll get 10 different answers…and few to no business plans for how to harness its power.

Most people will tell you that Big Data is…big. Conventionally, Big Data is viewed as data sets that are so large and complex for any single, conventional tool to capture and manage. More colorfully, Yahoo CEO Melissa Mayer recently likened Big Data to “Watching the universe develop a nervous system.” The net effect is that systems analysts, developers, healthcare systems and even the US Government are scrambling to develop and adopt a model to harness and analyze the flood of information being produced (the federal government recently set aside $200 million to fund big data initiatives, while the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health have jointly awarded $15 million to fund eight big data research projects, focused on the improvement of health).

The Flood of Big Data

Big Data is Social…is it Healthy?

As shown in the infographic above, Big Data is social – we are generating and sharing terabytes of information everyday online. Social sharing is becoming an integral fabric of our society (as of February 2012, 66% of online adults use social networking sites according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project).

Organizations such as Kaiser Permanente and Aetna continue to pump resources (man-hours and dollars) into making electronic personal health data available for its members via secure portals. Couple our online tendencies with the surge in healthcare initiatives in the US, the allocation of funds to make digital health data more transparent (see above), and the mainstreaming of digital health conferences – from SXSWi Healthcare Track to the Wired Health Conference in NYC last month – and it would seem natural that health data would become more social. Yet the numbers remain low. According to the Pew Internet & American Life project (May 2011) only 59% of all US adults online have searched for health information, compared to 75%+ who look for car-buying information online, according to JD Powers and Associates.

Data from the May 2011 Pew Report The Social Life of Health Information reveals that the numbers are lower for our current social networks:

  • 23% of social network users follow friends health experiences online
  • 24% of users have consulted reviews for medical treatments and 16% read reviews for doctors and healthcare providers (vs 57% who rely on restaurant reviews)
  • 15% of social network users have gotten any health information from their social sites (vs. 99% who view cat videos).

All joking aside, there is a visible gap between the quest for information online, and the proliferation of electronic data we are creating, and the use of these same online tools for healthcare. Despite this gap, Harris Interactive, the McKinsey Global Institute and other pollsters tell us that large numbers, upwards of 65%, of healthcare consumers want their information accessible online – everything from prescription information to doctor’s notes to their test results. Beyond personal care, what patients and healthcare consumers would do with this information is unclear. Is it a leap to think that the Gen-Xers, Millennials and generations after them would embrace social sharing to the level of swapping health information online.

The ePatient Movement Setting the Trend

ePatients, a motivated group of online health consumers who use “e” to mean empowered, engaged, equipped and enabled, will tell you they want their data to use as they see fit to take care of their health (see e-Patient Dave deBronkart’s battle cry “Gimme My Damn Data!”). Groups like Partnership with Patients, and Fast Forward Health, the roving TriBeca-meets-Sundance film festival for Healthcare, continue to spotlight patient needs and healthcare consumer demands; both groups use social media to mobilize advocates and build followings for their events. Healthcare conferences have taken over Twitter as well, with the 2012 HIMSS (Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society) Conference set a record number of tweets, generating 33,247 mentions and the #HIMSS12 hashtag was used 28,434 times.

To me, this looks like the beginning of a long-term, game-changing trend. Analysts follow trends, leaders predict them and business luminaries create them. Consultants, the next time clients come to you looking for the next Facebook or Twitter, or how to launch a healthcare initiative on either, consider creating a bonus section to that proposal to test the waters: the next big platform is out there, waiting to be built. Will your client lead the way? Where are the healthcare luminaries who can set the trend for social health, marrying big data, a growing online presence of ePatients, and a national interest in wellness? That’s the next big thing the dreamers can make a reality – that is the future of digital and social health.



About the author: Gigi Peterkin is a writer and digital media consultant. She has worked in healthcare for more than 15 years, launching social media programs for AstraZeneca, GE Healthcare, and Merck Consumer Health among others. You can learn more and hire Gigi via her website,

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