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Data control: pharma and big data in healthcare

Whether it's big, smart or right, this could be the year pharma and healthcare sees large benefits from data

Big data healthcare visualisation
Data explosion: visualisation of doctors and scientists co-authoring articles on hepatitis C by Andrew Lamb, Inspired Science/Ketchum)

As annoying as buzz-words can be, there's often something in them. Take 'big data'. It certainly seems like an idea whose time, in healthcare, is now.

The stakeholders keen to see progress in the area may, for obvious reasons, be led by IBM and its supercomputer Watson, but hospitals, patient groups and pharma are this year proving to be close behind. It's also an idea that's common outside our sector.

“The amount of data has exploded and we, as brands and companies, are receiving huge amounts of it - and if we look at the social side of this, the data is becoming more personal,” explains Michael Plimsoll, who is Adobe Systems Europe's industry marketing director.

Plimsoll was speaking at last month's one-day Velocity event, organised by Digitally Sick in association with The Earthworks.

The London event brought together high profile speakers from other industries to talk about how they tackle some of the key issues that confront pharma, with an panel of experienced pharma personnel on hand to provide an industry-specific filter. 

Big data was one of the topics that loomed large on the day, though the preferred term for Adobe's Plimsoll is 'right data' or 'smart data', because he says it's not about the size of the data, it's about how we use it.

Focusing on one important source of data he also introduced the concept of 'exhaust data'.

“We're now getting more and more information about how people are doing things and we're creating this 'exhaust data', which is data that is created out of something that users are doing,” he said, adding: “Digital evolution has changed the landscape. Mobile and tablet devices has seen us go from an exponential growth in data to a logarithmic growth. So the sheer volume of data is huge.” 

The challenge for companies is that the way this data can be used is often driven by the customer. “They are deciding how they want to engage with you as a brand, on what device and when,” Plimsoll said, “And it's up to us to take that information and use it in the right way.”

Think like a start-up
Another of the speakers at Velocity was Tom Hulme, design director at influential global design consultancy IDEO. He works a lot with start-up companies, who value future options on things, and he explained how pharma could apply some of this thinking.

“We don't see this exhaust data on the balance sheets of pharma companies, but everyone [on the panel] has made a compelling argument for how it will differentiate companies in the future.

“So until we start attaching option value to these assets without a clear ROI for today, I suspect it will be the disrupters who see these assets differently who will slowly build these skill bases.”

Hulme added: “Pharma needs to learn how to apply tools [like exhaust data] efficiently. That's what's missing, not the ability to do it.”

He also had a message of reassurance for pharma that it's not a-typical and that similar sectors have managed to navigate the challenges it faces. “Pharma is probably analogous to banking in terms of regulation and the prohibitive barriers to entry. You could say it's also analogous to the energy companies in terms of the structural costs of getting going.”

The challenges imposed on banking and energy firms has forced them to develop new 'muscles' – something Hulme suggested pharma might do outside its regular, highly regulated prescription medicines business. “It might be support services or personal health apps and then aggregating that data,” he suggested.

But, as McKinsey & Company's healthcare big data report put it at the start of this year, 'stakeholders that are committed to innovation and to challenging convention will likely be the first to reap the rewards of big data'.

7th June 2013

From: Research, Sales, Marketing

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