Using as example a group of Stanford researchers who utilized data mining to identify unexpected drug interactions, today's Technology Review outlines "the increasing ease" in which scientists are scouring medical data:
The spread of electronic patient records, with their computer-readable entries, is opening new possibilities for medical data mining. Instead of being limited to carefully planned studies on volunteers, scientists can increasingly carry out research virtually by sifting through troves of data collected from the unplanned experiments of real life, as preserved in medical records from scores of hospitals.
Such techniques are allowing researchers to ask questions never envisioned at the time of a drug's approval, such as how a medicine might affect particular ethnicities. They are also being used to uncover evidence of economic problems, such as overbilling and unnecessary procedures. Mining of health records "is going to build advancements in research, but also efficiencies in the health delivery system," says Margaret Anderson, executive director of FasterCures, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
The article includes the thoughts of Stanford's Russ Altman, MD, PhD, who led the drug-interaction study. And it goes on to describe the "practical obstacles" - including the fact that most medical information is not yet computerized - that experts worry may slow down research in the field.