Big Data & Business Intelligence

Is Data the New Drug?

Fitness apps count our steps and take our pulse. But that’s pretty mundane compared with what researchers are working on. Big Data is going to revolutionize the healthcare sector.

24 Feb. 2016

From fitness bands to smartphones: In Germany alone, one in three people now records information on their own health status. Many share their data online with the rest of the world. Why do they do that? For some, it’s about competition. Is my training effective? Am I fitter than my friends? Today, the technical potential health tracking offers is no longer just for sports. Interest in the data is also growing – from all sides.

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Insulin trackers and Alzheimer’s analyses

A quick look at Apple’s App Store gives you an idea of the scale: The Health category has roughly 15,000 entries. Besides fitness applications like Jawbone, Runtastic or Fitbit, the number of medically relevant solutions is growing in particular. For example, diabetics can log their blood sugar values with MySugr. The app analyzes the data, detects patterns and uses the values to recommend precise doses for the next insulin injection.

Developers, mathematicians and doctors are working on many other Big Data applications for personalized medicine. One example is Alzheimer’s prevention and early detection. Early warning signs of the disease include gait changes – smart floors with sensors can detect these changes. Motion pattern analyses can then calculate the probability of the onset of Alzheimer’s. No matter what the application is, the more data the trackers record, the more reliable the results. Will doctors soon have to compete with algorithms?

Are we all going to become transparent patients?

The answer is no, for legal reasons alone. All results – whether insulin dosage or Alzheimer’s diagnosis – must be validated and confirmed by doctors. As it stands, doctors spend most of their time piecing together medication plans and former diagnoses. If the patient delivers this data in a compact format, that leaves more time for the actual treatment. Health insurance companies, in particular the German Techniker Krankenkasse, are now calling for personal health tracker data to be used in a central electronic patient file. Of course they are, because this information will allow them to calculate actuarial risks more precisely. As a result, politicians are insisting on one thing in particular: data privacy.

While the technology advances at a breath-taking pace, legislation is lagging behind. There are no clear standards yet. There are 28 different data privacy directives in the EU alone. However, the European Commission is now working on a harmonized solution specifically for mobile health applications. In a first draft guideline for app developers , the Working Group particularly recommends adhering to the "Privacy by Design" principle. The idea is to integrate security features, such as encryption algorithms, in the core software itself. Also, every app can only access the data it absolutely needs on the mobile device. This includes the "Privacy by Default" concept, which configures the highest data privacy settings by default. Users then have to actively allow their data to be shared with other apps or online.

Tomorrow's medicine:

But do people really care what happens with their data? Three of four participants in a recent BITKOM survey would share health data with their own doctor. However, only one in three would pass it on to their health insurance company, even if that would reduce their insurance premiums.

While the Internet of Things creates countless opportunities in personalized medicine, there are still many obstacles to overcome. One thing is clear: Big Data can help cure and prevent diseases. CeBIT attendees can experience the technical potential. From smart wearables and innovative medical technology to solutions for digital patient files, the latest developments will be on show here. Health is will also play a central role at the German Digital Economy Association’s Digital Transformation Forum in Hall 13.

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