Big Data, Big Expectations…and perhaps a little skepticism

Well in true healthcare form, we have discovered another silver bullet. Another magical cure for our health system woes. Now it is called Big Data. This silver bullet was recently called the consumerism of health. Closely preceded by Health 3.0 (I missed 2.0). And of course before that, the electronic health record. Last I looked none of these had delivered the cure for our ailing health system.

According to some research I have done, Big Data will prevent disease, spell the end of theory, and predict the outcome of social complexities. Wow! This could really be the silver bullet we have been searching for. I am sure there are those that believe this, or indeed choose to believe this is a cure-all.

It is estimated that we are creating 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each and every day. Data from all sources and forms. Naturally much of that is driven by image, voice and video forms. It must be noted that by definition this is data about what has happened. We are assuming we can therefore use the past to predict the future, so to speak. While not a totally unreasonable thesis, the basis must be understood and the data contextualized to the future state we expect.

The second observation, especially in a healthcare context, has to be around data privacy and ownership. This issue dogs our current health information agenda and does not seem to get any easier in a big data world. Consumer advocates are sure to raise the specter of linking personally identifiable data in this new paradigm. Not an issue to completely block the agenda, but one that must be anticipated and managed, whether through anonymization or policy.

Now to the issue I believe is the most impactful; that of the ready availability of the tools and most importantly the skills/ capacity to make good use of all this data. Many times in our past we have identified the skill gap as the strategic imperative to address. We have held meetings, written papers, and even received research funding. Yet, here we are today is mildly better shape than before. And now with this new agenda looming on the horizon, the challenge is amplified.

I note that the US government recently established a Research Initiative to assess the impact of big data on government. I wonder if we should do something similar in Canada, focused specifically on the health system. Perhaps this could be an agenda that Infoway adds to its portfolio? Or CIHI?

Such a National Health Data Initiative should include an educational component: what is big data, what can we realistically expect, who is doing what? It could look at the data we are generating, how it is organized and how it could be cross-referenced. However it must go beyond that and look at our capacity to analyze, not just generate, such data. Importantly it must look at other, more mature industries and how they have managed the big data agenda. How they handled the challenges, especially of privacy, how they sourced the tools, how they built the human capacity. We need to continually learn from others and apply those lessons to healthcare. Ideally we would engage someone from retail, banking or manufacturing to lead this thinking.

If nothing else, such an Initiative could set realistic expectations, perhaps debunking the silver bullet mentality we see all too often.
Can we have a national debate on this?

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