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Healthcare: The importance of making connections

This article appears in the issue May/June 2019 [Volume 28, Issue 3]
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News of a cancer diagnosis is a difficult moment, accompanied by a great deal of anxiety and many questions. Macmillan Cancer Support  is a nonprofit organization founded to help patients through each step of the experience. Based in the United Kingdom, Macmillan has developed an ecosystem of information and support services available to people worldwide. It includes medical information, guidance, and links to numerous resources. In addition, Macmillan has created a large online community of over 60,000 members in which individuals can seek advice and encouragement to help them deal with their disease.

This collaborative environment is built on the Verint Community engagement platform, formerly known as Telligent Community, and renamed following Verint’s acquisition of Telligent in August of 2015. The online community allows individuals to post questions, comments, and replies to questions asked by other individuals. Having a place to share concerns and receive support goes a long way to helping cancer patients feel less isolated and more able to cope with their disease. They can immediately become connected with people who understand what they are going through.

The importance of community support

Within the online community, members can join a group that addresses a particular type of cancer or a subspecialty such as triple negative breast cancer. Patients can inquire about whether others have experienced a particular side effect or if a treatment has been recommended, a vitamin supplement prescribed, or other factor that may be of concern. There is also a site devoted to those who have been diagnosed with cancer at a young age, so they can post their specific concerns.

Among the additional resources on the website are nearly 200 stories from individuals who shared their experiences, including how they reacted to their diagnosis, responded to treatment, and re-entered the working world after recovery. In a private messaging section of the website, also powered by Verint Community, users can click on “Ask an Expert” to get information from specialists on a variety of topics, including radiotherapy, diet, bone marrow transplants, or seek advice from a dietician or specialist—some are volunteers and others are paid professionals.

Other organizations that are assisting individuals with medical needs through Verint Community include Hearing First, a community that supports parents whose children have hearing problems, and Understood.org, which provides information and discussion groups about attention deficit disorder and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. “Both these groups address issues that can be very difficult for the individuals who must contend with these conditions and for families that care for them,” said Jon Allen, VP and general manager of Communities and Web Self-Service. “Having community support to provide insights and suggestions is very helpful.”

Verint Community is one of several engagement platforms offered by Verint Systems. These include a call center, a knowledge management solution, and voice of the customer software. “One of the advantages of Verint Community is that organizations can have their community up and running in just a few weeks,” continued Allen. “It is easily customized and configurable.” The community can benefit both the members and the sponsoring organization. “Far more information is created by a community of interactive members than can be obtained from a typical call center,” Allen pointed out. “This broad base of information is very valuable. And knowing what is important to the members allows the organization be more responsive to their needs.”

Seeking relationships in data via graph databases

Meanwhile, as the important work of nurturing patients goes on, so does the work of finding solutions to cancer and other complex diseases. One of the most promising technologies for moving this process forward is graph database technology. Enriched by semantic analysis and integrated into a data fabric, the diverse information that provides clues to solve such problems can be used in a dramatically more effective way.

According to a report from Datamark Inc., only a minority of healthcare companies have a solution for using unstructured clinical information contained in electronic health records (EHRs), although encouragingly, a majority of companies are either implementing one or exploring their options for doing so. But EHRs represent only a fraction of the immense volume of information associated with healthcare. Much of it is in unstructured format, but even the structured data varies widely in content and purpose.

HealthCareBetter use of information and technology

The Health Story Project is an initiative of HIMSS, a nonprofit organization that seeks to improve healthcare through better use of information and technology. It estimated that more than a billion clinical documents are produced in the U.S. annually, with the majority in unstructured format. Better utilization of this information could go a long way to producing better outcomes.

Graph data models allow interpretation of data that comes from different sources by representing data as sets of entities called nodes and connections referred to as edges. “One advantage of graph databases is that they can allow for simpler access to data across the enterprise, not only from different sources but also different types,” said Jamie Powers, senior director of healthcare and data science at Cambridge Semantics. “These sources could include structured data from relational databases to unstructured sources, from documents to images and everything in between.”

The other major advantage of graph databases is the flexibility to add to and change the data model—a major asset in a field that is constantly evolving. “You don’t have to re-architect it the way you would with a relational database. You can update and pivot the data model on the fly,” Powers added. The additional entities, whether people, locations, facts, or events, can be incorporated into the model as they become available.

Image Courtesy of Cambridge Semantics

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