How Big Data is Catalyzing the Return of Personalized Wellness

With the help of big data, physicians have the opportunity to build a new kind of patient engagement.

Imagine you want to buy a particular pair of shoes. As a modern consumer, you’ll likely spend an evening online, browsing various websites to ensure you snag them at the best price. Say, however, you get cold feet — you are currently shoeless, after all — and decide to sleep on it, delaying the purchase until morning. Upon waking up, you open Facebook and your digital news outlet of choice. What do you see? Display ads for precisely the pair of shoes you were shopping for just eight hours earlier.

In the era of big data, this is an entirely unremarkable experience. Humankind produces 2.5 exabytes — that’s 2.5 quintillion bytes — of data every day, a volume equivalent to roughly 530 million MP3 song files or 90 years of HD video. Organizations in the media and marketing spheres have already become quite adept at leveraging these data points to create intensely personalized consumer experiences, and the healthcare industry would do well to follow suit.

The Loss — and Recovery — of Individualized Wellness

In 2017, the average individual’s relationship with their primary care provider consists of little more than a single 15-minute interaction once a year during which the physician often seems more concerned with frantically scribbling notes than with listening to what the individual has to say about their health and wellness. This has not always been so.

In decades past, primary care physicians maintained substantive relationships with their patients, enabling practitioners to gain a nuanced understanding of the ins and outs of their patients’ lives. This facilitated highly-personalized care, as physicians were willing and able to treat each patient as a unique individual instead of a generic set of symptoms. Unfortunately, as the growth of the general population began to exponentially outpace the number of new doctors, highly-personalized healthcare ceased to be a workable option — until now.

Not only does modern data-based technology allow us to text or Skype with our primary care physician between annual checkups and request in-home, in-person consultations as easily as we summon an Uber, it also redefines the kind of care physicians are capable of providing. Data — both patient-generated and gleaned from inside the exam room — doesn’t simply increase access to care; it makes care better.

The Case for Personalized Care

As with an advertising campaign, the more personalized a healthcare regimen, the more effective it will be. As neurologist David Stark pointed out at Saatchi’s recent panel on this topic, most medical treatments — especially pharmaceutical ones — emerge from clinical trials that determine success and failure based in large part on averages. No matter how extensive a trial, there is no guarantee that the participants’ genomes and microbiomes will align with those of any given patient.

As things currently stand, rare diseases are most likely to be treated through highly-specific regimens — that is, drugs or other therapies tailored to a unique set of circumstances — but preventative medicine and routine therapeutic practices remain fairly standardized. This is an incomplete and short-sighted approach to healthcare for a majority of the population.

When you think about it, it’s actually fairly absurd how willingly we — patients and doctors alike — accept the proposition that one’s health can be effectively assessed through a single snapshot taken during an annual physical. Though they are, of course, critical indicators, vital signs and manifest symptoms are but two aspects among many that contribute to an individual’s overall health and wellness. As I hinted at above, one’s genome and microbiome play significant roles in determining one’s health, but lifestyle choices (diet, exercise, willingness to follow doctors’ orders) and social determinants of health (neighborhood, income level, and communal support system) play equally important roles.

The Role of Data in Improving the HCP-Patient Relationship

Guiding the healthcare industry toward more personalized, more effective care will be a two-pronged effort. First, physicians must take a cue from marketers and media professionals and begin searching for, collecting, and using patient data — from what they’re reading to where and how often they travel.

The pace of data collection has only accelerated as the number of internet-connected sensors has ballooned. Cell phones come equipped with accelerometers and cameras, cars feature as many as 200 sensors (some of which are now being used to personalize insurance rates), wearable devices monitor heart and respiratory rates, temperature, and sleep cycles, and the internet of things enables everything from refrigerators to vacuums to become sources of valuable information.

In short, the data needed to drive the (re)personalization of healthcare already exists; healthcare professionals only need to accept its importance and strive to organize it. This is where the second prong comes into play. To borrow Dr. Stark’s formulation, personalized healthcare requires more than data — it requires the right perspective. Dr. Stark was adamant that we must move beyond the notion of health as an “absence of disease” and focus instead on patients’ holistic wellness.

Building sustainable health involves maintaining a salubrious lifestyle, which means patients need to make the right choices. It is here, as Dr. Berzin asserted during our recent panel, that data becomes invaluable. It’s unreasonable to expect physicians to craft personalized healthcare regimens if they are ignorant of what goes on in their patients’ lives beyond the four walls of the exam room. Data — both explicitly “medical” and otherwise — can provide physicians with the panoramic perspectives they need to deliver carefully-considered, highly personalized care.

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