Massive Influx of Patient Data Creates Worries, Opportunities

8 Oct 2014 by Teresa Meek

A folder with a lock on it

Clinics and physicians will be seeing a heavy influx of new patients this year. At the same time, more data about patients is being collected than ever before. The confluence of these two trends means that doctors, clinics and hospitals will be facing a staggering amount of patient data — and they will be held responsible for managing it and keeping it secure.

It might not seem that way to overwhelmed clinics, but Obamacare was designed to create efficiency in the medical system by taking formerly uninsured people out of emergency rooms and instead providing them with preventive and primary care. An estimated 32 million new patients will be entering the U.S. Healthcare system under Obamacare this year.

It doesn’t take advanced math skills to realize that more people going to the doctor means more patients per doctor. Since there’s already a shortage of family medicine practitioners, the situation is expected to get worse. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) estimates a shortage of more than 90,000 physicians of all types by 2020. All these new patients will have electronic health records; these records are becoming increasingly long and detailed as providers, patients, and pharmacies digitize information that used to exist only on paper or in the mind.

All records must meet the standards of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which mandates that patient data be secure and released only in accordance with its rules.

The more data, the greater the odds of infiltration or human error. A recent report by a security firm shows that HIPAA data breaches jumped 138 percent from 2009 to 2013. That’s over 29 million patient records, and of course it doesn’t count cases that weren’t reported.

HIPAA violations are mainly concerned with breaches of protocol. A more dire and growing threat is hacking.

A 2013 study by the Identity Theft Resource Center found that the healthcare industry was the victim of 43 percent of hack attacks, higher than any other sector of the economy. Hackers want patient information so that they can steal their identity and use it or sell it to other thieves. Some want prescriptions to gain access to narcotics. Armed with enough data, hackers could have the power to shut down a hospital. This environment puts health care providers under great pressure to emphasize data management in their practices.

But it’s not all about threats. Big Data and the analytical tools that go along with it can better measure patient satisfaction and lead to improvements in overall efficiency and quality of care. Some providers are using technology like virtual assistants, to interact with patients when the provider is not available.

When applied to back-office finances, technology can provide a clear and easily accessible picture of what treatments or activities are going on where, and what the result of a change would be. Technology also allows for analysis of large, complex data bases that could lead to new solutions and greater efficiency. For researchers, this could lead to new cures.

Ready or not, more patient data is rolling in. The future belongs to those providers who can see beyond the worries, into ways that will harness its amazing potential.