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Big Data, Big Medicine

Big Data

We’ve figured out how to analyze social media, videos, geolocational data and other online data to perfect our business efforts. Applying those capabilities to the field of medicine, where additional data includes research studies, medical records and the human genome, will revolutionize the way that we’re cared for in the future.

We’re still in the early stages of what promises to be a sea change in the field. Even so, medical big data applications are already generating answers before human experts can. Google Flu Trends is mapping flu activity across the country in real-time by analyzing massive amounts of search terms and their locations. Stanford data scientists and Microsoft have used big data to discover a new drug interaction before the FDA could even report it, according to the New York Times. (More drug interaction studies are to come; this particular finding uncovered a blood-sugar increase when the antidepressant paroxetine is taken with the cholesterol-lowering drug pravastatin.)

There is a growing trend towards gathering unstructured data, such as symptom complaints on forums and doctors’ notes, and applying analysis to come up with new insights. Powerful computers are being used to analyze electronic health records and other registries to pinpoint regional and demographic trends, and eventually enable practitioners to personalize health care based on what the data says. There’s even talk of a massive DNA database that can tell you if you’re vulnerable to certain afflictions or substances.

The Democratization of Medicine

The trend towards the quantification of personal health—using mobile devices to track, often in great detail, diet, physical activity, sleep patterns and other daily habits—is set to complement the more macro-scale efforts that are already underway. Many things that currently happen in a doctor’s office are in the process of being brought down to a personal, available-anywhere level.

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In the future, you may be able to enter a set of symptoms into a mobile app and have it generate a personalized response to what might be ailing you, and what to do about it. Your mobile phone will remind you when it’s time to take your insulin shots, and then measure the dosage for you and take your blood pressure to boot.

All of that data will be stored to track trends and generate a big-picture overview of your health. If you tend to feel nauseous after Easter dinner, but didn’t realize you are allergic to an additive found in the ham you traditionally consume on that night, your app will make the correlation for you. These data-driven correlations could make ‘mystery’ symptoms few and far between.

The benefits radiate beyond patients. For their part, medical practitioners will have more evidence to work with to pinpoint problems. Medical researchers will have an increasingly rich data sets to work with in order to advance their own knowledge.

The net result will be a revamping of the way we stay healthy. This seems geared to lead to the democratization of medicine, offering everyone access to the knowledge they need in order to become empowered consumers of health care.

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