How Big Data and the Check Engine Light Will Transform Healthcare

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by Robert Wolverton, November 11, 2016

Before the ‘check engine’ light and similar on-board diagnostics were integrated into automobiles, drivers rarely knew when a problem was developing. The first warning of an impending problem often coincided with being stranded on the side of the road.

In a best-case scenario, the car would overheat and the steam that resulted would prompt the driver to pull over before any serious damage was done to the engine. If the driver ignored the steam more serious consequences occurred – resulting in significant costs such as engine repair or the replacement of vital components.

With the integration of early warning signals built into the dashboard, drivers became more aware of what was going on under the hood and could make intelligent decisions about their travel. If the check engine light appeared, the driver could make his way to the nearest garage and get help from a professional to remedy the problem while it was still minor (and much less expensive).

The Argument for a Human ‘Check Engine’ Light

Physicians today may find themselves like auto mechanics from 30 years ago – they are unaware of problems until something breaks down, becoming involved only when someone is towed to a garage … err, transported to a hospital by ambulance.

Physicians and advocates of wellness attempt to educate the public on early warning signs of heart attack, stroke, and cancer. Unfortunately, compliance is often poor, and such problems frequently go undetected until discovered at a doctor’s office or hospital.

Individuals also inflict much damage upon themselves, with more than 20% of the population addicted to tobacco and 50% of Americans overweight. Often individuals are entirely unaware of troublesome signs and symptoms.

The time delay in the behavior-consequence equation provides no early warning of the future penalties to be paid for current bad habits. Historically, people haven’t had ‘check engine’ lights to warn them of their risk of disease or even death.

In many cases, the first warning sign a person gets is when their ‘engine’ starts to sputter or even stops. The only time an individual can see the information that lets them know what is going on under the hood is when their body is in the shop and an array of wires tether them to a hospital bed.

Experience shows that providing individuals the ability to see how they are performing against key performance indicators (KPIs) in their work environment leads to appropriate self-correcting behavior adjustments. If individuals could understand what’s going on under the hood, they might also be prompted to make appropriate self-correcting behavior adjustments – and more intelligent decisions about their health.

The Evolution of Technology and Integration of Patient Information Makes The Human ‘Check Engine’ Light Possible

We have the opportunity to transform healthcare delivery within and outside of the hospital environment so that patients will have much more than a simple ‘check engine’ light.

Technology and big data is transforming every industry. Personal computing and mobile devices are the new portals for accessing data from an immense array of sources. Business Intelligence and data visualization push information directly to the consumer instead of remaining locked inside data warehouses and closed systems.

Quite simply, data visualization is transforming how we consume information. We now have the ability to consume vast quantities of data without becoming overloaded. Data visualization is rapidly emerging as an alternative to detailed reports and spreadsheets.

The same is true in healthcare.

It is estimated that a healthcare provider entering a typical intensive care room is bombarded with over 250 data elements from monitors, medication IV pumps, mechanical ventilators, and other high-tech devices. The human mind cannot comprehensively and instantaneously observe, integrate, and draw conclusions from that amount of data.

Help is needed to ensure that serious problems are in-your-face evident, and that potential problems are anticipated with a quick glance.

Moving Beyond Charts and Graphs

Data visualization moves beyond charts and graphs by introducing graphical representations of underlying data.

Visualization capitalizes on the human visual sense to perceive changes in expected behavior. Data visualization also provides an intuitive, easy-to-understand platform for communicating data results to doctors and patients.

The monitoring of health data is vitally important for proper preventive care. And the ‘check engine’ light approach to patient health is a perfect application for data visualization. The technological tools necessary to bring about this transformative change in healthcare already exist, including:

  • Sensors that monitor vital signs and other important measures
  • Smartphones that connect wirelessly to such sensors
  • Smartphone applications that collect this data in real-time
  • Highly intuitive user interfaces and data visualization tools that enable understanding of the data
  • Petabyte-sized “big data” warehouses that capture ever-expanding sensor-generated data
  • Pattern recognition analytics that identify predictive patterns and inform the smartphone application

If we put the right real-time health information in an easy-to-understand format at a person’s fingertips, we can create systems much more powerful than a simple ‘check engine’ light.

Physicians will have the capability to configure which data to capture. They can specify the targets and thresholds for that data that require action, and designate the trends and combinations of elements that should generate relevant instructions to patients. Automating this process provides the patient and caregiver with a treatment plan, consequences of inaction, and/or scenarios based on the treatment plan selected.

When we apply such technology to a person with Type 2 diabetes, for example, the odds of keeping that person healthy and out of the emergency room skyrocket.

Certainly the individual benefits. But if we deployed this concept to every Type 2 diabetic in the United States, the annual savings would be several billion dollars. And, by removing this significant burden from Emergency Rooms, we can free up capacity to allow providers to improve the quality of care for other non-avoidable health crises.

We can also build-in support mechanisms that reinforce this virtuous cycle:

  • Shared Real-Time Views: Web-based applications allow physicians to monitor their patients, seeing what the patient sees. This shared view enables the physician to guide and coach individuals at “teachable moments.” Such monitoring would help physicians better manage patients they’ve discharged from the hospital and prevent readmissions.
  • Automated Alerts: Triggers built into the smartphone application tell users when multi-variable thresholds are exceeded, bringing their attention to a problem as it develops rather than after it’s too late.
  • Safety Net: This functionality automatically sends both condition and GPS location information to the 911 operator when critical thresholds are exceeded. Research shows that the time delay between a critical health event and receipt of care is the biggest factor in determining successful treatment and recovery.

The Benefits Are Within Our Grasp

With the right tools, we can establish individual awareness enabling proactive health management that motivates the patient to take action. Empowering people to manage their own health, with a focus on preventing catastrophic events and effectively controlling chronic conditions, will transform healthcare.

We can begin to move our healthcare system away from the current reactive mode of treating illness and toward a more proactive mode of promoting wellness.

The implications are significant to Americans: Health care expenses currently exceed 17% of our gross domestic product, and are growing at a rate faster than the economy can sustain.

Technology has the power to improve the efficiency with which health care is delivered. It can help us to better manage healthcare-related costs. It can enhance productivity by slashing sick days and enabling a healthier, more energetic workforce.

All of those benefits can be achieved simply by creating a human version of the ‘check engine’ light that is in every modern car and RCG Global Services is beginning to bring this vision to life. Our healthcare team has created a functioning demonstrative application that collects data from several wearable devices and presents it in real-time on a cloud-based dashboard that shows where the individual is and how they are faring. We’re drawing closer to the future of healthcare every day.

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