Why the Consumer Data Boom is Good for Healthcare and AI

Ryan Black
DECEMBER 06, 2017
big data analytics, big data wearables, big data healthcare technology, hhs opioids data, hcanews

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) held a symposium this morning focused on the role data can play in fighting opioid abuse. Joel Selanikio, MD, said it was the first time he had been back in the agency’s headquarters since leaving his post in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 14 years ago.  

That comment was prescient, as the focus of Selanikio’s speech was on the ways data aggregation has changed in recent years. Information that was once primarily created in enterprise settings is now overwhelmingly generated by consumers in their daily lives, and that can be a good thing for healthcare.

Up until the late 1970’s, computing was strictly a pursuit of enterprises, he explained. Personal computers eventually gave way to cell phones, leading to a leap in the sheer volume of data mankind generated daily. Later, the Blackberry emerged as the undisputed champion of business communications, but he said, “anybody who knew anything about the long-term trends,” knew that the device’s peak in 2006 would give way to something different entirely.

The iPhone and the touchscreen, camera-centric, web-intensive era of smartphones that followed have further exploded the amount of data human beings create. Every hour, he said, human beings now create the same volume of data that they did from the dawn of human history until the mid 1990s.

There was a time not long ago—as recently as 2015—in which dictionaries defined “big data” specifically as data sets that are too large to easily process. Artificial intelligence (AI) has changed that. Conundrums that can confuse machines, like photos that may contain either a Chihuahua or a muffin, are beginning to melt away: Humans now take more photos of both Chihuahuas and muffins than ever could have been imagined.

Just as the market for business communications pales in comparison to that of consumer devices, the market for health technology follows suit. Though the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act in 2009 may have subsidized the adoption of electronic health records (EHR) to the tune of $7 billion, that’s a “pittance” compared to what consumer health technology represents, he said. Apple makes as much money solely off of the Apple Watch—a device with ever-growing health capabilities—as Epic and Cerner do every year off of their entire operations.

“The vast majority of health technology out there is not, by any measure, healthcare technology,” Selanikio said. That may create a problem for doctors, who had more information than they could handle long before patients had access to the smartphone ultrasound or the wrist-worn EKG. The key to turning that problem into opportunity, he said, will be AI.

“Artificial intelligence thrives when there’s more data,” Selanikio said, and most of that data will inevitably have to come from the consumer end of the equation. As AI continues to improve, it will allow insights to come not only from new consumer health technologies, but it will also allow older healthcare information to be used in ways no human doctor could have ever been capable of.

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