It sounds like the title of a bad disaster film, but the data tsunami is actually one of the biggest issues impacting healthcare today, both positively and negatively. The colloquial term refers to the huge amounts of data being generated now that healthcare and IT have become so closely linked. At the same time that data is creating exciting new opportunities for improving outcomes, it is also creating a host of difficult issues around technology, compliance, and governance.

To give you a sense of the scale of this data tsunami, a recently released report estimated the volume of data in 2013 at 153 exabytes (one exabyte is equal to 1 billion gigabytes). That number is projected to balloon to 2,314 exabytes by 2020, a figure that could prove to be conservative. In effectively illustrative language, the authors of the report point out that if you stored the 2013 total on a stack of table computers, that stack would be 5,500 miles high.

Clearly, a volume of data that large has a number of exciting applications. But simply managing it presents a roadblock to many of those applications. To begin with, there is the challenge of identifying who owns that data and how that data is defined. The continued challenge of achieving meaningful interoperability is so difficult precisely because so much data much must work in concert.

Much of this data is coming from the growing use of electronic medical records. But digital medical imaging and personal health information generated from things like FitBit bracelets are adding significantly to the total as well. Experts have noted that the rise of cloud computing is helping to give form, function, and manageability to this massive data repository. But at the same time the integration of IT with so much of healthcare in the form of tablet computing etc is creating “shadow IT” sources that are difficult to monitor and manage.

Anyone involved with IT understands that the sheer size of the data tsunami makes it almost impossible to secure effectively. But considering the sensitivity of much of it, and the frequency with which healthcare is targeted by hackers these days, putting effective safeguards in place may be the most urgent priority. The ability of big data to revolutionize healthcare has been well noted, but before the benefits are realized, it’s imperative to deal with the challenges.

If your organization is dealing with the data tsunami or seeing its shadow looming, it’s time to get your IT ready. Find resources to help you align your staff by consulting the staffing professionals at MedPartners.

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