Public Health: Current Situation and Opportunities

India spends $252 million every year on tuberculosis control and management. But 278,000 lives are lost each year despite the onerous efforts to curb the disease. Where do the doctors fail? What do the DOTS clinics do wrong? Or is it only because people do not comply with treatment leading to increase in MDR-TB (Multi-Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis) cases? Imagine an alternate solution in which we could mark areas with lower case detection rates and spruce up the medical training for workers in those select zones; identify high risk demographics and concentrate awareness and screening efforts to those places alone; understand behaviour patterns of people and relate it to educational level to predict patches with poor drug compliance. Gaining such insights was unthinkable earlier but the use of big data is making this increasingly possible today.

How Big is Big Data for Public Health?

The field of medical sciences and healthcare stands at a crossroad today. The road less taken leads into a maze that has not been unravelled as yet. This maze contains tons of raw information that does not make much sense to us at the moment. However, with the right tools and steps in the right direction we can decipher the codes and conquer the maze. The insights thus generated will bring to us a world of solutions for the problems faced at the public health front today. There are several aspects to the complexity of this maze, the foremost being the sheer enormity. Mankind has generated more data in the last 5 years that it did in its entire existence. 2.5 petabytes (10^15) is the memory capacity of the human brain and 4.75 exabytes (10^18) is the total genome sequences of all people on Earth. Compare that to the 1.8 zettabytes (10^21) of digital data created in 2011 alone.

Sources of Data in Public Health

Health data sources include patient records, health monitors, personal health apps and genomic data. The fact that this data comes from multiple sources and is collected for various purposes makes it haphazard and difficult to extract data sets. Productively using big data to generate patterns requires finding the right links between time, place and demographics. For example, learning sexual behaviors and trends can help channel focal intervention for curbing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Genomic Data: Most Highlighted Benefactor of the Data Revolution

Genomics refers to the entire gene sequence information of a person, which is massive information and work in itself. Going forward, big data has allowed us to delve into public health genomics which refers to the entire genomic data for a population under study. This field is the most highlighted benefactor of the data revolution. Analyzing population sets at gene level is giving scientists cues for understanding cancer, non-communicable diseases, infections, HIV etc.

Industries Benefiting from Effective Use of Public Health Data

Insurance companies are successfully using data collected from payers for analyzing the correlation between patient profile and treatment requirement. This is helping them rewrite insurance policies for better effectiveness. India has very few platforms that lend money for healthcare expenses. Health finance is a field which has the potential to alter the health scenario in India and other developing nations. Big data products can be used to assess risks, detect frauds and dubious claims etc and hence support lenders expand in this for-profit social sector.

The Fight Against Open Defecation

In order to tip the scales against open defecation practices, WHO and UNICEF are getting governments across the globe to build more toilets in developing countries. However, the number of people defecating in the open continues to be a staggering 620 million. To reduce the gap between the efforts and the impact, toilet tracking in some ethically feasible form must be done. For instance, it might be significant to find out whether the toilets built at homes are being used or are serving as storage rooms for grains and fodder (a common practice in several villages). It would also be significant to determine whether the toilets in public spaces are perceived as safe by local women or not. By leveraging community based services, such information can be collected and analyzed to demand reforms at policy level.

Is Personalised Healthcare the Future?

In the future, personalised healthcare alerts might be as common as personalised weather reports. The University of Kansas Hospital (KUHA) and CSC have partnered to develop CareVeillance. This system uses predictive analytics to integrate data from healthcare providers, patient profiles, medical records and insurance claims and process it through a set of algorithms which presents actionable information to clinicians about diseases that are likely to affect the patient under examination. The challenge at hand is to invest wisely to learn to join these dots efficiently. It is a major investment, indeed, but is bound to save millions of dollars on government healthcare costs.

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