How will big data change the way we deliver workplace health programmes?

Stephen Haynes


Stephen Haynes

Stephen Haynes

Stephen will be at the Workplace Wellbeign and Stress Summit 2013 on the 28th November in London.

One of my many preoccupations, and I’m sure something that is on the minds of many others in our collective markets servicing the health of Britain’s workforce, is what to look at and what to do with the tremendous volumes of growing data that exists and what it can mean to the future of health at work.

Big data is about capturing, analysing and triangulating data from multiple sources. Almost everything we do leaves a digital trail that can be traced back to us, and the implications of what we can do with the large collective data sets this creates is immense. Let’s not forget that the healthcare industry is also the largest source and driver of big data.

BD means different things to different businesses and in part depends on the needs (and foresight) and capabilities of the company managing the data as it is not possible to capture and analyse these huge data sets using traditional database management systems – ideally, businesses need hundreds, even thousands of servers to access and manage all the data. From helping us decode human DNA in a matter of minutes, to vastly increasing our ability to identify cures and new treatments, to improving prevention and predicting health behaviours, to de-risking insurance and ultimately improving patient journey and outcomes.

Better integration, capture and management of data is becoming more a reality for businesses and how we harness this power will determine future market leaders.

We’ve been analysing data for years, but what is relatively recent is the rapid growth in significant volumes of information. It is the combination of all the data we are generating (in practically everything we do – from emails, texts, social media activity, use of mobile devices, remote sensing technologies, cameras, microphones, software usage, wireless sensors etc.) and the improvements in technology that enable us to analyse and correlate the complex data which is showing us things in new ways.

So what does this mean to the future of workplace health? Well in the short-term, some might argue, not much – health insurers in the UK for example are beginning to scratch the surface, using data to better understand and improve the patient journey – the Bupa Finder service for example is helping people better navigate the health system, find the best match consultant and treatment centre – it is possible that big data may help health “insurers” move away from simply being insurers to healthcare providers in the broader sense, tapping into the un-serviced (or uninsured) market.

This is early days, but already there are a small number of companies harnessing this power. Employee Benefits advisor, Punter Southall have developed the technology to capture specific employee data and punch out to respective insurance carriers, whilst the start-up, Navigator Health provide employers with a dashboard to centrally manage and integrate all things to do with health. Then there is the growing number of consumer health ‘integrators’, such as Tictrac, which enables people to connect all our health apps in one place, or AT&T’s mHealth tool which enables people to store their entire health history in the cloud, connecting data from phone health apps to your medical and prescription records to your insurance information.

One of the first big changes big data will bring about is in the triangulation of health data in the workplace. Take for example EAP, health risk assessment or PMI data. In isolation, they represent small segments of the overall workplace health profile – and will be misrepresentative of the true picture. Combine and correlate all the data and you have a more accurate picture of the health and wellbeing of the workplace. This will help organisations de-risk, better plan and improve delivery of workplace health.

Let’s also not forget the significant growth in health apps and more targeted health information. This is putting more control in the hands of the consumer who in some cases are already a step ahead of the services available through traditional channels, be that health-related insurances or the health related services provided by their employer. Whilst information better empowers us as individuals, there are disconnects and one of the key advancements in the workplace health industry, from insurers to employee benefit providers to Occupational Health, will be in the integration of data. For example, integration of data from personal medical records with social media analytics (which could even include spoken word/ written character recognition that identifies relevant health-related conversations) can enable a business to real-time outbreaks and better predict and implement effective measures.

But the big questions are, who owns the data and what will it be used for. On the one hand, we have increasingly stronger privacy laws, yet on the other, there is ambivalence to privacy amongst the younger generation. Whatever the case, there is a fine line between [invasion of] privacy and improving the health and wellbeing of the workforce – or even saving a life.

This is still early days – people are not rational beings and whilst big data is helping us better understand our e-selves, we have a way to go before we are capturing our real-selves. Arguably with the growth in wearable devices and implants we may well be in a world in the not too distant future that correlates digital traces with rational (or unrational) human behaviour.

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