Big Data’s crucial role in transforming healthcare policies

Thu, 12 Nov 2015 • Joel Vega

There is a lot of data in medical and healthcare communities but its potential to transform current healthcare strategies remain unused due to barriers such as ethical, legal and trust issues, to name a few.

“To the question ‘Can we transform cancer care through big data?’ my response would be yes, it’s possible. But there is a lot of work that needs to be done, and we should come and work together if we have to reap the benefits of Big Data,” said Peter Boyle during the concluding session of the European School of Oncology (ESO) Interdisciplinary Conference held today in Barcelona. Boyle is affiliated with the University of Strathclyde Institute of Public Health at iPRI (International Prevention Research Institute).

Boyle gave a comprehensive overview on the role of Big Data which he defined as “a collection of data or datasets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using on-hand databases management tools.” He noted the challenge to managing Big Data includes capture, curation, storage, search, sharing, analysis and visualization.

Boyle also expanded on the definition and said that Big Data “is the realization of greater intelligence by storing, processing and analyzing data that was previously ignored due to the limits of traditional data management technologies.”

Regarding the healthcare sector, there are obvious reasons why the community should harness the power of Big Data such as personal benefits (predictive algorithms) and gains for the general community or public.

He also cited the US experience wherein former President Richard Nixon launched the “War on Cancer” through the 1971 National Act of Cancer, but which after more than four decades only end up in poor clinical outcomes and unsustainable costs. Worse, there are around 7.6 million deaths every year that are attributed to cancer, worldwide.

“There were massive quantities of data but there is no systematic sharing of these data,” said Boyle.

Boyle listed the benefits of harnessing Big Data in healthcare such as rapid and cheaper drug discovery, improved trial design, smaller trials sizing, improving personalized medicine, among others.

“But why hasn’t it (Big Data sharing) happened?” asked Boyle. “There are academic disincentives such as the fact that the academic tenure system is driven by data hoarding.”

He also noted that patients are worried about privacy, confidentiality issues, consent and ethics concerns. And in the part of the corporate sector there are IP and Competition Law concerns.

In his concluding remarks, he emphasized that changes within the healthcare sector itself should be initiated.

“If Big Data is to succeed then the initial requirement is to have data sharing. For example, pathologists could be reluctant to share data with other clinicians and basic scientists,” said Boyle.

“Technically, there is much that can be done today with computers which was not previously possible. However there is a need for substantial work to clear some of the hurdles which require to be faced and overcome,” added Boyle.