use of big data

Unleashing the true potential of big data analytics in healthcare will require solutions to privacy and security issues, increased computing power, and new skilled human resources


Big data analytics (BDA) offer limitless opportunities for big data to drive knowledge discovery, health research, personal health management, and clinical care. However, while big data is highly promising to the healthcare field, there are a number of obstacles which impede its true potential, including privacy and security issues, technical challenges, and skilled talent.

Privacy and security issues are a huge barrier that has and will slow the rate of success and adoption of big data in the health sector. In particular, the mining of public health information poses risks to the privacy of patients and their consent as to how their data is collected, used, and disclosed. Practices such as ‘Privacy By Design’, where privacy and security are designed into technologies, practices, and infrastructures, is one of the solutions that maintain patient privacy while enabling BDA to be done on sensitive health information. Legislation changes reflecting new policies on privacy and security, as well as definitions for BDA use are also necessary to overcome this problem and drive big data applications forward.

Technical challenges range from increasing computing power to upgrading existing infrastructure to accommodate BDA technologies. The processing of perabytes (1015 bytes) of data requires an enormous amount of computing power, and most organizations simply do not have the needed capabilities. In order to access greater processing power, numerous organizations in the U.S. are partnering with IBM to use their question-answering supercomputer system, Watson. Watson has many ways to perform analytics on health information, and one is that it can run predictive analyses to extract medical facts and interpret relationships from data like family histories and clinical research reports.

Skilled talent is also required for the adoption of BDA in healthcare. The lack of trained analysts with the skills to interpret big data represents a gap in big data delivery in healthcare, as well as other industries like commerce. As a starting point, useful strategies would be to train existing IT professionals in new technologies that support BDA, improve its understanding at the management level so that there are champions for big data applications, and commit business resources to create a culture of innovation and experimentation using big data technologies.


Hansen, MM, Miron-Shatz, T, Lau, AYS, & Paton, C. Big Data in Science and Healthcare: A Review of Recent Literature and Perspectives. Yearbook of Medical Informatics, p21-26, 2014.

Murdoch, TB and Detsky, AS. The inevitable application of big data to healthcare. Journal of the American Medical Association, 309(13): 1351-1352, 2013.

Big Data Analytics in Health White Paper by Canada Health Infoway:

IBM Watson:

Privacy by Design






Written by Fiona Wong, PhD


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