From big data to better healthcare: Jump on board

From big data to better healthcare: Jump on board

There is a new vision of better healthcare being made possible through the mining of an ever-expanding sea of health data.

This vision is very compelling. But a lot of work needs to go into the mechanisms for drawing clinically relevant insights from data before a better understanding of disease and the prescription of more effective treatments will result.

Big data and the health of individuals

In his recent “Creative Destruction of Medicine” lecture, Dr. Eric J. Topol described how the confluence of social networking, smartphones and medical data will give consumers control of their own information and revolutionize healthcare. Indeed, an immense volume of information, created on a daily basis, already provides us with many opportunities to collect personal health data on both micro and macro levels.

Of course, a lot needs to happen on the journey from collecting information to distilling wisdom from it.

Eric highlighted a few examples in medicine where, by measuring biomarkers unique to every individual, doctors could develop a tailored treatment plan. However, development and deployment of these genetic and imaging biomarkers is not a simple task—each needs to be validated by large studies before it can provide a meaningful step up in our understanding of disease and then guide its clinical management.

Biology itself remains a mind-boggling complex of issues. Take epigenomics, for example. As we learn more about the factors regulating genetic code it becomes clearer that what’s written in our DNA is only part of the story. Nutrition, embryonic development, early life and social experiences all play important roles in affecting how our genes are expressed throughout life. Our genes “listen” to the environment in complex ways that affect both our health and our behaviours.

I believe an improved, individualized healthcare system—leveraging reserves of big data—will become a reality only when we have built an efficient, functional interface between basic science and clinical impact.

Here in Ontario we are hard at work constructing this interface.

  • The MaRS Health IT Innovation Forum, a collaboration space for healthcare, allows healthcare practitioners to co-ordinate activities and share inter-institutional expertise.
  • Brain-CODE will store clinical data and brain images, as well as gene and protein data, for many neurological conditions.

Eric’s “Creative Destruction of Medicine” is a veritable call to action for patients. In his book of the same name, he writes: “It is time for the public outcry, ‘Show me the data!’ And to be more precise: ‘Show me MY data!’”

We are beginning to embrace the data technology already available, and there is the promise of a future when doctors will access more exact data about our health and prescribe more exact treatments as a result.

However, as with any transformative phenomenon, a diversity of approaches should speed the yield of best results. Two local examples spring to mind:

  • First, Hacking Health, a weekend-long hackathon, with clinicians, developers and designers combining forces to build realistic solutions to front-line healthcare problems.
  • Second, pioneering companies are using data visualizations to unravel the meaning behind large data sets that would otherwise be too difficult to understand.

The confluence of these initiatives will hasten the advent of the promising healthcare future to which we aspire.

Data should be answering millions of new questions in our very near future. The ethical, business and technology implications of this new dimension of human health will be explored at The Data Effect conference next week. See you there!