Big data in healthcare: the quest for the perfect diagnosis

Variability is well known in medical practice: multiple patients with similar illnesses may have different treatments depending on their doctor’s criteria. This is our worst enemy as patients: does our doctor have enough knowledge about our medical issue or not? Nowadays, with technology developing fast, it is indeed unnecessary to expect individual doctors to store all the possible knowledge in their brains and leave the diagnostic process down to, basically, a matter of luck.

It is no secret that the world’s population (and therefore the number of patients) is rapidly growing, as is technology: we produce more knowledge than we can actually absorb. When a doctor is unsure of his or her diagnosis, the normal procedure (after consulting all medical literature) is to ask a colleague. They actually have around four to six queries per week: too much for patients’ welfare. However, scientific information and medical knowledge doubles every 3 years, and here is the good news: technology does help.

In Spain most of the clinical records and medical history of patients is digitalised and all valuable information is kept in the public Health System. This was the starting point of one of our most promising projects in medicine: a neurologist, a lawyer and an engineer have developed a system to improve healthcare diagnosis, by using big data on clinical records and artificial intelligence. “We thought it could work in the same way as case-law in the legal system: use what we have learnt in previous cases in order to find the best solution for present cases in real time,” explains neurologist Ignacio Hernandez, co-founder of Savana (used by more than 40 hospitals in Spain) and Medroom.

“The aim of the projects is to have the same experience as if one doctor enters a room with the best specialists in the world to ask their opinion about a specific medical issue,” clarifies doctor Hernandez, who firmly believes that “very soon it will be part of our daily routine to use artificial intelligence in our medical queries to reduce the number of errors we make.” He is a young neurologist who is firmly dedicated to achieving his goal: “we want all patients, from anywhere in the world, whoever they may be, to have access to the best possible medical knowledge. This will completely revolutionise the way we understand medicine today.”

He is not alone: big data is already being used to predict epidemics, cure diseases, improve quality of life, and avoid preventable deaths, although it is still early days. Dr. Joel Selanikio, who combines technology and data to help solve global health challenges, gave a fantastic TED talk in 2013 about the big data revolution in healthcare, which is well worth watching. He points out the main challenge for healthcare in non-developed countries, stating that we don’t know for instance how many children are born, there are, or have died in Bolivia, Botswana or Bhutan… the needs of the elderly, the mentally ill…

It makes no sense that today the only way to find out how many children were vaccinated in Indonesia, for example, is by going out and knocking on doors to fill out paper surveys that take years to complete. Even worse is that if you know that millions of children die of vaccine-preventable diseases every year: diseases for which the vaccine costs a single dollar. “Millions is actually a gross estimate: we don’t really know how many kids die each year of this,” Dr. Selanikio argues.

As technology reaches such countries, more projects are successfully introduced. The so-called ‘big data revolution’ is there, not just for healthcare, not just for developed countries, but to improve people’s lives. However, there are still major challenges to face and big data trends in healthcare to watch out for.

The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data (The Economist shows), and the potential of big data and artificial intelligence for healthcare is enormous. According to Steve Lohr, “listening to the data is important… but so is experience and intuition,” which is why the blend of doctors’ experience and intuition with their analysis of the information provided by big data powered software is such a powerful resource. It looks set to be a turning point in healthcare, where this old saying by Arthur C. Nielsen becomes a mantra: “the price of light is less than the cost of darkness.”

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