Back in the days of small town doctors, your family physician likely knew your whole family, was aware of their habits and health concerns, and could see patterns in behaviours and health histories that spanned a couple of generations. They could advise, counsel, and offer timely interventions when they saw a change in you that might signal a bigger problem to come. A lot of that personal touch has been lost in today's healthcare -- but Big Data and predictive analytics is turning out to be a surprisingly effective way to revive it.

To understand how, it’s important to understand that a collection of data in and of itself is not information – for data to be information, it also requires context and understanding. A collection of information is not knowledge. We must build knowledge from information by identifying and interpreting patterns.

This kind of opportunity data is touching every area of our lives today, and extending into relationships between customers and providers in all industries – including healthcare, where it’s edging closer to replacing the lost piece of the old-school family doctor/patient relationship by tracking patient behaviour and taking note when it verges into unhealthy habits.

Bloomberg reports that, “Carolinas Healthcare, which runs more than 900 care centers, including hospitals, nursing homes, doctors’ offices, and surgical centers, has begun plugging consumer data on 2 million people into algorithms designed to identify high-risk patients so that doctors can intervene before they get sick. The company purchases the data from brokers who cull public records, store loyalty program transactions, and credit card purchases.”

What kinds of data are they looking for? Simply put, changes in patient buying patterns that could signal a health problem, when combined with that patient’s personal medical history. They plug this consumer data into algorithms, identifying high-risk patients, and flagging unhealthy habits in the making, looking to head off a future health issue before it happens. Is a patient suddenly buying unusually large amounts of alcohol? That could be a red flag for depression or another mental health issue. Has a patient with asthma or another chronic breathing condition, started buying cigarettes? Maybe a reminder from their doctor could help them to break that new habit before it really takes hold. Perhaps a patient with a pre-diabetic condition as a result of a weight problem is spending too much “quality time” at the bakery. Time for a call or a note from their health-care provider.

Predictive analytics will absolutely transform health care as we know it today, enabling entities like Carolinas Healthcare to interact with patients in a more effective and proactive way, by reaching out and educating them to be better stewards of their own health.

Big Data can be turned into opportunity data – and in this case, important interactions between doctor and patient. Look for more creative and interactive uses of opportunity data as the relationships between consumers and providers/sellers becomes ever more transparent and two-way.