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The Biggest Challenges in Health Care Data

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Data is reshaping health care – and in Stanford Medicine’s inaugural Health Trends Report, we describe how data now permeates every component of the health care system, from medical research to patient wellness regimes. These vast new troves of data from electronic medical records (EMRs), connected devices, and wearables offer the chance to make health care more predictive and preventive.

If you can use it.

One of the biggest challenges is to free data from the silos in which it too often remains, an issue that affects both patient care and medical research. A first step is to make EMRs interoperable, so that patients can freely share their information with as many providers as they wish. The days when patients are greeted at a doctor’s office by only a clipboard should be long gone. Allowing for truly portable records will lead not only to major improvements in the efficiency of the health care system, but to improvements in care as well.

Challenge No. 2 is data security. Hackers have made health care data a major target, a particularly worrisome development given the sensitivity of this information. In order for individuals to feel comfortable sharing their data, everyone in the health care ecosystem must constantly remain vigilant about protecting data and keeping private information private.

Other hurdles stand in the way of sharing data for research purposes. To medical researchers, the promise of big data is tantalizing, but the reality is often frustrating. Many institutions still lack the technological infrastructure needed to harness their own researchers’ mammoth data sets, let alone those at other academic centers; fixing that alone could present medical science with one of the greatest research opportunities in decades. More investment is needed in those back-end structures, but this is not just a question of computing power alone. As we outline in our Health Trends Report, proper policies and legal agreements must be adopted as well.

On a fundamental level, scientists in both academia and industry must change some of our attitudes about data. Traditionally, researchers and organizations have tended to treat data as a proprietary asset. Yes, there are sound professional reasons and strong incentives to do so, but we must move beyond this kind of thinking. There is so much more to be gained by pooling our data resources than by holding them close.

Hard as it may be for some to believe, the U.S. government has been leading the way when it comes to data sharing. When the Department of Health and Human Services established healthdata.gov, a site that makes available huge amounts of information to researchers from academia and industry alike, it proved a valuable resource to medical researchers. Many have used this data in designing new methods to supplement and even replace clinical trials, which are notoriously difficult to fill with patients. Giving researchers these additional tools can speed the pace of medical innovation and help to bring breakthroughs forward in ways that make a difference for patients.

Big data benefits patients beyond research advances, of course. It can also be a tool that allows us to take greater control over our own medical treatments and wellness. The ability to monitor our personal health metrics on an ongoing basis – and to identify risks and challenges – is hugely empowering. Data-based tools like these allow individuals to partner with their health care providers to take a more proactive and preventive approach to their own health.

These are exciting times in health care, and a new era is within our grasp. If we can overcome some of these obstacles to unleashing the power of big data, the possibilities are limitless.

This essay appears in today’s edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily. Get it delivered straight to your inbox.