How Big Data Is Changing Healthcare

by CXOtoday News Desk    Nov 24, 2015


The role of big data in the enterprise is becoming more important than ever as more and more companies are making a conscious and deliberate decision to embrace digitization and the information revolution. Yet the role of big data in medicine seems almost to compel organizations to become involved. In a recent interview with McKinsey, Dr. Eric Schadt, the founding director of the Icahn Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology at New York’s Mount Sinai Health System, explained how data-driven approaches to research can help patients, in ways technology has the potential to transform medicine and the healthcare system.

The biggest limitation

Schadt believes one of the main limitations with medicine today and in the pharmaceutical industry is our understanding of the biology of disease. “Big data comes into play around aggregating more and more information around multiple scales for what constitutes a disease—from the DNA, proteins, and metabolites to cells, tissues, organs, organisms, and ecosystems. Those are the scales of the biology that we need to be modeling by integrating big data. If we do that, the models will evolve, the models will build, and they will be more predictive for given individuals,” he said.

As models come up in areas of aggregating big data, we’re going to be testing and applying the models on individuals, assessing the outcomes, refining the models, and so on. Questions will become easier to answer. The modeling becomes more informed as we start pulling in all of this information. “We are at the very beginning stages of this revolution, but I think it’s going to go very fast, because there’s great maturity in the information sciences beyond medicine,” he said.

He stated that information-power companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook, apply a lot of algorithms to predict what kind of movie you like to watch or what kind of foods you like to buy. This kind of similar machine-learning techniques should be applied in healthcare. “Those same types of methods, the infrastructure for managing the data, can all be applied in medicine,” he said.

Wearables changing the future of healthcare

Wearable devices and engagement through mobile health apps represent the future—not just of the research of diseases, but of medicine. “I can be confident in saying that, because today in medicine, a normal individual who is generally healthy spends maybe ten minutes in front of a physician every year. What that physician can possibly score you on to assess the state of your health is very minimal. Unless something catastrophic is going on within you—lipid levels that are way off the charts or glucose levels or something extreme—they’re not doing much to assess what your state of well-being is, and the information stored in medical records is not extensive enough,” said .

What the wearable-device revolution provides is a way to longitudinally monitor your state—with respect to many different dimensions of your health—to provide a much better, much more accurate profile of who you are, what your baseline is, and how deviations from that baseline may predict a disease state or sliding into a disease state. That means we’ll be able to intervene sooner to prevent you from that kind of slide. That sort of modeling would be impossible unless you could phenotype individuals on a longitudinal and long-term basis.

And while the wearable devices today are in this more recreational-grade state, they’re changing incredibly rapidly into research grade and ultimately clinical grade.

“There are already glucose monitors that are FDA1 approved that individuals can wear and that interface with digital apps, which then connect directly with healthcare providers based on what they’re seeing with your glucose profiles,” explained Schadt stating that one would see that kind of sensoring get better and better, providing higher and higher grades and better and better profiles on individuals over time.

Schadt estimated in the interview that in five to ten years, accurate information about one’s health will exist more outside the health system than inside the health system. And that will force the engagement of that information by the medical community.

The future of big data What I see for the future for patients is engaging them as a partner in this new mode of understanding their health and wellness better and understanding how to make better decisions around those elements, said Schadt. For device makers, on the other hand, he sees this as a revolution that’s theirs to lose if they don’t embrace the development of consumer wearable devices or sensors, more generally, in environments where every person is buying a device versus one of a handful of medical systems. “That’s a better business model that’s going to generate lots of revenue. And so it’s up to the device maker to embrace that revolution and even start transforming some of the devices they’re already making into consumer-grade devices that can be not just recreation grade but higher grade, on toward the clinical grade,” he said.

Getting the right talent

One of the biggest problems around big data, and the predictive models that could build on that data, really centers on how you engage others to benefit from that information, stated Schadt. “Beyond the tools that we need to engage noncomputational individuals in this type of information and decision making, training is another element. They’ve grown up in a system that is very counter to this information revolution,” he said.

Schadt believes that more emphasis should be given on the generation of coming physicians and on how we can transform the curriculum of the medical schools. “I think it’s a fundamental transformation of the medical-school curriculum, and even the basic life sciences, where it becomes more quantitative, more computational, and where everybody’s taking statistics and combinatorics and machine learning and computing,” he said.

He concluded that while it is difficult to take somebody already trained in biology or a physician and teach them the mathematics and computer science, but that itself can make much difference in the indusrtry.