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What do we do with all the data now that we have it?

The amount of information being collected today is overwhelming - even for computers.

I was just reading an article talking about the status of wearable technology. The author states as follows:

All these wearable and mobile products, touted as “disruptive,” “revolutionary” … haven’t proved value to healthcare providers or large number of consumers

Another article about digital baby monitors states as follows:

it’s hard to figure out what parents can do with this data or how it could actually help babies sleep better.

Both of these articles make a legitimate argument for backtracking from the excitement over all forms of wearable technology. One of the key selling points of wearables, is that they provide a constant flow of data about the user, without the requirement for any specific action by the user.

In previous articles I have referred to a simple behavioral fact, that humans will avoid an activity, even if it is as simple as pressing a button. For example, counting on the user to press a button, even on the face of a smart watch every time the user takes a medication, is far from 100% reliable. Until the entire process of taking a medication / swallowing it / identifying it as having reached the digestive system, becomes digital and automatic, there will be no fully reliable system for tracking medication use.

So in summary, if users or overseers are not making use of the data, why collect it.

I would argue differently. This kind of thinking is based on the principle that we already know what the data will tell us. But what if we have no idea what critical secrets are hidden in this “unused” data?

Is there a connection between a baby’s rate of breathing and the risk for flu? Is there an advantage to monitoring the heart rate of any patient over 40, in order to identify early signs of heart disease? Does a neurological disease like Parkinson’s, manifest as small but detectable changes in blood pressure years before the actual disease presents?

The answer is for all of these questions, that I have no idea. But to be fair to myself, no one has any idea. The medical world tends to be somewhat presumptuous, and also has a tendency to think inside the box.

It is not easy to introduce a new way of thinking, and a whole new concept of testing, to the medical world. While the highest-end medical journals like JAMA and the New England Journal of medicine report on critical and well researched studies every issue, they tend to shy away from early concepts and technical predictions. If I were to suggest any of the correlations above [about vital signs and disease], I would be hard-pressed to garner the interest of any well respected journal. To be fair, this is not entirely unreasonable. Speculation has its place. But the top-end journals want to be the source of evidence-based medicine based on what ever principles have already been verified.

In any case, despite the fact that I cannot answer my own questions, I can say this: the only way in which we will ever answer such questions, is the constant monitoring and recording of physical signs of people.

The only way in which I can reliably say that alterations in blood pressure are an early warning sign of a disease that presents years later, is to have a complete record of a person’s blood pressure continuous readings going back as far as possible. By the way, no human will be able to spot these subtle correlations amongst the incredible sea of data that is collected. Instead, specialized data analysis tools that can intake huge quantities of data, and find correlations [both expected and unexpected], will be needed to take full advantage of the collected data.

Now, you can still easily argue that there is no benefit to the early identification of the disease, like Parkinson’s, when we have no cure. On the other hand, if we ever hope to halt the progression towards Parkinson’s, we will have to identify patients who still only have the earliest warning signs. You can then ask these patients to become part of a study to see whether you can change their outcomes. And once again, none of this tracking and studying would be possible without constant monitoring and the analysis of huge quantities of data.

I think that most physicians and medical researchers today, would agree that there are many hidden secrets in the data we have already collected on the millions and millions of patients who have gone through the healthcare system. The obvious issue is extracting these secrets. And as to secrets that lie within data that we are not collecting, we have no hope of extracting these findings, unless we all allow ourselves to be constantly monitored.

In summary, I don’t think you need to know what to do with all of the data we collect. What would most likely work very well, would be to anonymize all of this collected data [i.e. delete anything that might identify the person from whom the data came] and then post this anonymized data to the open web. There are plenty of researchers who would jump on such data and analyze it to the nth degree. And, I believe, they would find things that we never imagined.

Thanks for listening

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
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