Data in the digital health world.

Estimated reading time 3 minutes 30 seconds.

By Dr Ryan Grech

The 21st century is without any doubt the century of information & data. Almost every day there is a new article about the importance of data in the different industries and how it is being used by different companies. 

We are at a time where during the course of a single day, most things that we come in contact with store some form of data about us. Be it your phone storing data about the places you visited, your fridge tacking how many times a day you have opened it or how many times you restock it, your car tracking your driving behaviour or how many times the rear passengers don’t put on their seatbelts; to social media storing how you engage with different content. We create roughly 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day and it is estimated that by the year 2020 we will create 1.7mb of data per person every second [1]. Imagine that. No wonder we have termed this big data.

All of this data, for example in the retail industry, is being put to use by companies to try and earn your money. It helps companies understand better their customers, how to target their customers and how to acquire new customers. It also allows companies to streamline their supply chain. It helps relate the customers to the product. Data is used in research, in security and law enforcement, financial trading and more.

Healthcare is no exception and the practice of using data to improve your personal health, population health and healthcare systems is ever on the increase. On a personal level, the data collected by your phone, wearables or even other gadgets can help your doctor make better decisions. In the case of diabetics, how has their blood sugar been? With more data about the blood sugar, the doctor can fine-tune medications better and understand more when and where the blood sugar is likely to spike. Similarly, patients with COPD or asthma, with the doctor having more spirometry data, adjustments to treatment can be fine-tuned which improves the quality of life of patients. Thanks to big data analytics in healthcare we are now able to individualise cancer therapy. For example, Dr Lee who dedicated his life to breast cancer research says that “We can now analyse multiple variables from a single specimen, such as changes in DNA, changes in RNA and changes in methylation. Genome-wide scans allow for better systems biology and allow us to learn what's gone wrong in a particular tumour.” [2]. This allows for more personalised and targeted cancer therapy. Breast tumours in premenopausal women express different genes than those in menopausal women [2] so the same treatment is not as effective in both. Finding more and more mutations due to increased available data coupled with better computing power to analyse this will undoubtedly improve care.

From a public health perspective, data will help us track and predict the developments of epidemics or diseases such as flu. Once you integrate all of this with electronic medical records seemingly innocuous coincidences might lead to patterns of outbreaks. Within the healthcare system, data points help identify where things go wrong - it is able to build patterns of mistakes and therefore allows intervention to prevent similar mishaps. It helps identify inefficiencies and offers a chance to improve and streamline processes.

Data analysts are thus very important within the healthcare sector because they can optimise today’s computing power to do all the above and much more. Like everything though there is always a catch, the catch here is data privacy and security. I for one am happy to give my data up for the betterment of myself and society, but in order for me to do so, I need to feel safe that my data is well protected. We’ve all read stories of Facebook having multiple data breaches amongst other companies. Healthcare data is even more sensitive.

So whilst welcoming the enormous benefit that data and information have to offer us; further advancements in both regulatory and technical tools for enabling privacy & security are discussed and improved, always make sure to know who is handling your data, how your data is being handled and how it will be used.

[1] https://www.domo.com/learn/data-never-sleeps-6

[2] Adams, J. (2015). Genetics: Big hopes for big data. Nature, 527(7578), pp.S108-S109.