“Today our country has XXX new cases of Covid-19, XX new deaths and the R-naught is XX”. This has become a very common report we hear about on the news.
And if most of us understand the 1st and 2nd numbers, the 3rd… not so much. What does it really mean?
Nowadays we are exposed to the public health/epidemiology side of healthcare informatics, which aims to inform and manage the public’s response to an epidemic. The field runs deeper though, all across the medical fields and applying software engineering, electronics engineering and data science to help them.
(Side note: R-naught determines how many people will get infected by a pathogen from a person who has been infected. So a pathogen with a R-naught of 2 means that an infected person will infect 2 more).
The Importance of Healthcare Informatics
Healthcare informatics in a simple definition is the multidisciplinary approach that aims the study of the design, development, and application of computational innovations to improve healthcare and medicine. It spans from bedside patient tech to research in medicine.
The history of this field began in the early 1950s with the rise of computers. A first reference of the possibility of usage of computation techniques within medicine dates as early as 1949, to Gustav Wagner, who established the first professional organization for informatics in medicine. Specialized courses began to appear during the 1960s in Europe and the first research units dedicated to the area appeared in Poland and the USA in the 1970s.
Since then, the development of high-quality health informatics research, education and infrastructure has been a goal of the U.S. and the European Union.
Early names for health informatics included medical computing, biomedical computing, medical computer science, computer medicine, medical electronic data processing, medical automatic data processing, medical information processing, medical information science, medical software engineering, and medical computer technology.
Since the 1970s the most prominent international coordinating body has been the International Medical Informatics Association (IMIA).
You can find it in the information systems that accompany you every time you enter a clinical setting, to the systems that analyse your medical imaging when you need to take an x-ray or an EEG or even in the medicine distribution system that warns your pharmacy of the prescription set by your doctor.
With a correct use of this mix between data and medicine, we can certainly achieve a better future where healthcare becomes an information driven area and each patient gets a specific tailored treatment.
The Problems in Data in Healthcare
Yet not everything about healthcare informatics is good though. There are several challenges up ahead that need to be dealt with.
Let’s talk about 3 that bring many problems in the environments where health informatics exist.
Have you heard about the dirty dozen?
The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) has developed a report that leads most of the current misinformation on vaccines to just 12 people. Yes, I’m saying this. 12 people are responsible for over 65% of all vaccine misinformation. The outcome of these 12 people saying blatantly wrong information to their combined 59 million followers is difficult to measure but observable.
1. Joseph Mercola;
2. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.;
3. Ty and Charlene Bollinger;
4. Sherri Tenpenny;
5. Rizza Islam;
6. Rashid Buttar;
7. Erin Elizabeth;
8. Sayer Ji;
9. Kelly Brogan;
10. Christiane Northrup;
11. Ben Tapper;
12. Kevin Jenki.
These 12 people and the social media platforms that allow them to spread their misinformation have caused deaths, not only from covid-19, but also from other preventable illnesses such as measles and whooping cough (here’s one whooping cough story for you to check).
The question here is: the disinformation dozen are clearly causing public health issues leading to deaths but should we curb their freedom of speech?
I’ll leave this one for you to think about. 🤔
Hospital and clinical settings more often than not have pretty old information systems and small IT teams. This creates a serious setting prone to data breaches (check this link for data).
Data breaches and other cybersecurity issues in healthcare pose a serious risk to people’s lives and wellbeing, such as:
1 - Diagnosis is often dependent on the medical history of a patient so if the physician can’t access it easily it often delays critical diagnosis;
2 - Certain diagnosis can put people’s lives at risk if divulged to the wrong people such as an AIDS diagnosis;
3 - Treatment and plans of treatment can often be derailed and errors can occur if healthcare providers cannot access or update the information when providing said treatments;
4 - Clinical trials depend heavily on the data being provided by the hospitals in which they occur.
So what to do to counteract these problems?
1 - Push for correct budgeting for the information departments;
2 - Hiring of the appropriate team by the directions, namely a mix of specialists in healthcare data and cybersecurity;
3 - Intensive and appropriate training of all the staff on cybersecurity measures;
4 - creation of systems that diminish attrition (such as less usernames/passwords but more effective ones) and enforcing those systems.
Healthcare informatics is spread all around the world with multiple healthcare systems, hospitals and universities contributing to the data generation. With this, an universal problem arises: lack of standards.
I'm being serious. 😬
Just look at part of the possible IDs you can get on bioMARt, one of the most well-known conversion tools in bioinformatics:
This generates a major problem regarding the lack of standards in how to identify certain features or how to measure certain properties.
When research requires multiple sources of data from multiple parts of the world, this can compound quite quickly in statistical errors. So, what can be done to mitigate this?
1 - This problem will be mitigated naturally the more data in medicine becomes common;
2 - Researchers and Technicians should have set protocols to harmonize the data and make those protocols public;
3 - Always validate your tests with a similar dataset from a different research institution, preferably even from a different country. Your protocol should work as well with totally different data.
But how to determine where to get good Healthcare data ?
Good Sources of Data
So where to get good information regarding in health, healthcare, and public health to practice?
The rule here is reputation, history, and diversity of the sources. Sources should have a good track record, a history of accurate and simple data visualizations and be clear about their sources. You should also keep comparing sources from 2 distinctive areas, such as European and American sources, African and Asian or any other combinations. If 2 distinctive sources from 2 geographical areas are agreeing on the data, the probability of it being true increases.
Our World in Data
Let’s begin by a data visualization friendly resource.
Our World in Data is a project of the Global Change Data Lab, a non-profit organization based in the United Kingdom. It’s the outcome of over a decade of work by the lab to turn data into meaningful, easy to learn data visualizations that helps people better understand the world around them. They keep regular collaborations with experts in several areas of data they dwell in.
This page is an interesting example to check in their work: it shows how economic inequality influences the distribution of vaccines around the world.
Another great project to check is Worldometer
This project is run by an international team of developers, researchers, and volunteers to make world statistics available in an easy interface and time relevant format. It’s published by a small independent digital media in the USA. It has no investors, donors, grants or backers in order to try to maintain an independent, apolitical, non-governmental and non-corporate position on the data published.
If you want data updated on a daily basis, Worldometer is your place.
The center for diseases control & prevention (CDC) has been keeping for a long time (since 1946) comprehensive data in disease control and healthcare in the USA. They are a comprehensive source of information and one of the broadest sources of information for a single country. Check them here.
Finally, if you want to check good quality clinical data the European Medicines Agency is your place. As the major medical regulator for the European Union, it has a broad peer review process and high-quality standards. Here you’ll find data regarding studies in drugs, vaccines, and medical equipment.
IT Healthcare: final thoughts
After learning about the importance of IT Healthcare and its challenges - through this article and all the reliable sources of data hyperlinked to it, if you feel like revolutionizing the future of medicine through data...
Get in touch! 😁 The Ambassadors of KWAN will be happy to let you know about the open vacancies in this area!