Big data will bring new approaches for healthcare

Big data is just data, but a lot of it. Big data can be big in both qualitative and/or quantitative terms and tools are emerging that will allow us to use it more intelligently.

The concept of the “qualified self” offers the potential to improve the early diagnosis of disease.

Squaring the circle

Advances in medical science, genetics, drug treatments and epidemiology are allowing people to live longer but many spend the latter years of their life in poor health.  With poor lifestyle choices are leading to greater numbers of people developing chronic conditions such as diabetes which are a huge financial burden to the NHS.

Professor Andrew Morris, Scotland’s chief scientist and professor of medicine at the University of Dundee, says information science – or informatics – can help weave together a better journey of care for patients with long-term conditions and move healthcare away from a silo approach.

Prof Morris explained how the electronic health records of Scottish patients with diabetes are being collated and presented to clinicians as a patient dashboard.  The results of ophthalmology or podiatry appointments can be viewed alongside blood sugar and neurological readings.  Prof Morris revealed that bringing together this information had resulted in 40% fewer amputations and saved the eyesight of 50% more patients.

The professor is convinced that using big data analytics to “join up” healthcare will result in better designed services and will save lives. But the pinch points remain privacy, ownership, access and authenticity.

Among the solutions – according to Professor Jeremy Wyatt, leadership chair in eHealth Research at the University of Leeds – is accredited user access and restrictions on the distribution of data.  This backed-up with strict standard operating procedures should safeguard confidentiality. But Prof Wyatt concedes much still needs to be done before the public is convinced of big data’s trustworthiness.

Qualified self

Big data in healthcare is being fuelled by the rise in “new data” – gained from social media, smartphone apps, wearable and even ingestible technology.

New devices measuring exercise levels, blood sugar, calorie consumption, sleep cycles and more are now widely available and the data uploaded to servers for analysis.  Prof Wyatt explains the qualified self – or the expert patient – will soon be attending GP appointments with more than just vague symptoms.  They will have proper physiological evidence which will in turn improve diagnosis.

There is a huge opportunity for private sector innovation in the medical device field, which already turns over £17.6bn each year and employs more than 75,000 people.

Tom Fiddian, from the UK Technology Strategy Board (TSB), believes now is the time to tap into the qualified self sector.

Unlocking the data

Big data in healthcare currently comprises of patient medical records, genetic data, radiology images, data from nano-sensors and much more.

The data is already being used to improve patient outcomes and one example involves Cambridge-based Linguamatics. The company is developing natural language processing (NLP) systems which can scan, understand and extract valuable information from electronic health records.

Linguamatics have partnered with Georgetown University in America to develop a program to extract key information from medical case histories.  Data “locked” inside these texts often provides insights into disease co-morbidity and treatment options.

It is not as straightforward as it sounds; developing computer programs able to recognise the semantics of human free text is one of the greatest challenges in this field of computer science.

The team developed an iPad app which releases this data and allows clinicians rapid access.  This in turn has saved hours if not days of research and has enabled faster decision-making and improved outcomes for patients.

Many scientists, software engineers and clinicians alike believe big data will transform the way patient conditions are managed and will drive forward new treatments.  But challenges remain and there is still much to be done in the UK to convince the public at large that their personal information is not at risk.  What is clear is that big data is here to stay and opportunities are there for innovative companies to develop new diagnostics that will benefit patients and the economy.


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