Data, data everywhere, but not a bit that helps your doctor to think

I’m now living the measured life. I have a gadget strapped to my wrist that counts my steps and hours of sleep. It gives me a happy buzz when I hit my goals. I also wear a heart monitor and use a smartphone app to track my runs, bikes and hikes. Someday soon, a contact lens will measure my blood sugar and a watch will track my blood oxygen.

We are at the dawn of a health data revolution. When our vital functions are fully tracked and reported, each of us will generate more data in a few minutes than our great-grandparents did in a lifetime. Will this new data actually make us healthier?

Once upon a time your doctor could quickly summarize all that was known about you. He knew your pulse rate, temperature, blood pressure, sound of your heart and lungs and a few simple lab values. He knew your family history and a little about where you worked and lived. He quickly processed and analyzed this information to make a diagnosis and formulate a treatment plan.

However, the effectiveness of his treatment was limited by the supply of useful data. Many important factors couldn’t be measured. 

Now, the tide has turned. Data is abundant, but the physician’s analytic capacity has not grown along with it. They are drowning in an ever-growing tsunami of knowable data. Emerging technologies such as genomics (your genes), proteomics (the proteins genes make), microbiomics (the colonies of bacteria essential to bodily functions), transcriptomics (RNA) and connectomics (neural connections) will generate terabytes of clinically significant data about you. 

Let’s add to the mix the quantifiable health impact of your community, social network, socioeconomic status, and work and family life. It’s an analytic nightmare. And just when your doctor can’t take any more, you show up for your 15-minute visit with a Fitbit report and ask, “Hey doc, what do you think?"

Are doctors missing useful needles in an ever-growing haystack of information because their minds can’t possibly process it all? Clinicians need analytic and decision-support tools—computer systems that use expert protocols to combine, organize and pre-digest information and spit out succinct clinical summaries of relevant information for review at the point of care.

Health reform provided significant subsidies to doctors and hospitals that installed electronic health records (EHRs). These systems contain mountains of information, but analysis is meager.

Facebook, Google and Amazon can do more with your posts, searches and purchases to predict your future actions than the typical EHR can do to predict what diseases you will get. Interestingly, big data companies are applying what they’ve learned online to healthcare and we’re going to see big changes. Even Watson, IBM’s Jeopardy champ, is getting into the health analytics field.

Because it is too much to expect clinicians to do data analysis along with everything else, a whole new profession of health data analyst will likely emerge. These experts will work directly with the care team to analyze trends, merge disparate datasets, and develop better clinical interfaces to ensure health-related data points are turned into information and action.

In the future, I won’t have to show the doctor my Fitbit report because it will be analyzed and incorporated into a medical record where it is just one of many data points used to predict when or if I will get sick. Fasten your seatbelt because data-driven health care will change everything.

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