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Amazon launches big data service focused on health care

Data lake promises to keep health care organizations' information secure

Amazon has launched another business venture, this time pushing into the health care and life sciences sectors. The company announced a preview of HealthLake, a big data service housed in its Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud.

Announced at Amazon's AWS re:Invent conference, the service will help companies in the health care and pharmaceutical sectors analyze medical data trends.

HealthLake is a data lake tailored to health applications. Data lakes store structured data, like financial records and contact information, alongside unstructured data, like Word documents, PDFs, and images, indexing it all so big data applications can mine that information. 

HealthLake consumes information, ranging from diagnoses, medications, doctors' notes, and medical imaging reports to insurance claims. Many of these are in non-standard formats, and some are handwritten, but Amazon uses machine learning to mine the text.

The service interprets handwritten text and makes it readable, along with digital documents. It then uses natural language processing to identify and index distinct pieces of health care information, tagging it with metadata to make it searchable. This includes chronological metadata, enabling data scientists to create a timeline of medical events.

Amazon wants health care companies to use this information for big data analytics. That includes making predictions about individual patients, such as when a person with diabetes is likely to develop high blood pressure based on parameters, including their age, gender, and lifestyle. It will also help analyze larger trend data across populations for applications ranging from health insurance to epidemiology.

The system stores all this information in the Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) format from medical data standards nonprofit organization Health Level Seven. It enables health providers to share data, Amazon explained.

The system supports data privacy and security standards created under the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) imposes penalties of up to almost $60,000 per violation with an annual cap of $1,786,000.

Insecure medical document storage has been a thorny issue in the US. In September 2019, investigative nonprofit journalism team organization ProPublica uncovered medical images and health records for over five million US patients publicly exposed on 187 servers.

This is Amazon's second major health-care-related move in a few weeks. In mid-November, it announced Amazon Pharmacy, an online store enabling people to buy prescription medicines via the Amazon App using their health insurance. 

In 2019, it launched its Amazon Care health insurance initiative, targeting its own employees. This service offers telemedicine services to participants using a mobile app.

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