Health care is a big issue in the United States. With costs continuing to rise and the quality of care continuing to decrease, it seems everyone agrees that something needs to be done about it. We just can’t seem to agree on what exactly that something should be. Stepping away from the political debate about health care, big data has the potential to play a huge role in solving the issues our health care system faces today. How? Big data storage and analytical systems have made huge strides to become more enterprise friendly and accessible, including making a move to the cloud as big data as a service. With these strides, those involved in the health care system, from hospitals to health institutes, have explored big data's potential. The possibilities are exciting. Here are five key ways that big data could change health care for the better. (Get some background reading in How IT Is Changing Health Care.)

Reduced Costs

According to a study completed by the Institute of Medicine in 2012, 30 cents of every dollar spent in the health care system is wasted, amounting to $750 billion in waste each year. A large percentage of that waste comes from unnecessary services, such as repeated tests and inefficiently delivered services, followed by fraud, conditions that could have been prevented and, of course, paperwork.

While seeing this much waste in the health system is disheartening when we think of how many families struggle to find affordable, quality health care, that waste also presents opportunity. By using big data, the health care industry can identify and cut back on unnecessary spending by providing doctors with more information on their patients to help eliminate unnecessary procedures and by looking at the doctors and hospitals themselves for ways to cut expenses. For example, one health care provider used clinical data to find out which doctors were recommending the most procedures and treatments and discussed with those doctors how to reduce unnecessary procedures.

Access to Complete Information

The health care industry as a whole is one of the largest collectors of data. From research, to patient outcomes, to new techniques and drugs, there certainly is enough information out there to offer high-quality care at the lowest price possible. The problem is that most doctors don’t have all of this data gathered in one place where they can access it, and even if they did, would not have the time or capacity to read and absorb it all.

When you compare the ability of a physician to learn new information, perhaps reading two to three medical journals a month, to a computer, which could scour thousands of articles with a 100 percent retention rate, technology should be a physician's biggest tool. Big data has the potential to make this a reality by permitting the storage and analysis of those huge data sets, so doctors can instantly be notified of a previous treatment, a more cost-effective option or a history of a certain disease in the patient’s family.

Better Preventative Care

Big data also lays the groundwork for better preventative care through distant monitoring of our health. Most of us have already seen the beginning of this with sensors that monitor our heart rates or our sleep patterns, but these advanced monitors would monitor everything from blood cell counts to cardiac enzymes. Monitors like this could be used by physicians for at-risk patients, such as the elderly, and could also be used by individuals to monitor their health and get an alert that they may need to take measures to prevent a serious and costly condition. Big data could even take this process a step further by going back through all of the patient’s health data to make personalized recommendations for lifestyle changes or other treatments if necessary.

Personalized Diagnoses

Many patients going to the doctor’s office feel more like a number on a piece of paper than an actual person while they are there, and while some doctors could stand to improve their bedside manner, many simply have too many patients they see throughout the day to remember each one on a personal level.

While electronic records have helped doctors to better keep up with patient histories and procedures performed, there is a big difference between knowing what a patient’s blood pressure levels were at the last visit and being able to go over all of the notes, both structured (numbers) and unstructured (doctors' comments) in a patient’s history to detect overall patterns and progress. These patterns could then be used to establish best practices for treatment based on overall outcomes.

Improved Evaluations

Finally, big data provides an opportunity to better evaluate hospitals, surgeons, primary care providers and even staffing possibilities to see which are truly most effective at improving outcomes, not just handing out prescriptions. For example, Baylor’s Institute for Healthcare Research and Improvement analyzed patient satisfaction scores and hospitals’ nurse staffing policies. The institute found that staffing full-time nurses - as opposed to contract or temporary nurses - helped to reduce negative incidents, such as falls.

The potential role big data could play in medicine is truly exciting. The key is for innovation to begin with the advent of big data not end with it. As more tools are created and more ideas are generated through big data, it could be that the real solution to health care lies not primarily in public policy but in invention and creative thinking.