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Big data holds great promise for medicine – but what about for the patient-doctor relationship?

Big data is opening up all kinds of doors in health and medicine. Genomics and other 'omics, wearable technologies, combining detailed patient datasets for precision medicine – the possibilities seem endless.

In the most recent episode of Raw Data, a new podcast produced by Worldview Stanford, my co-producer Mike Osborne and I explored the landscape of big data in medicine. We had the opportunity to interview several Stanford researchers, including Michael Snyder, MD, who talked to us about his working taking the quantified self to the extremeEuan Ashley, MD, who explained to us the promise that wearables hold for early diagnosis of cardiovascular disease; and Sylvia Plevritis, PhD, who discussed how patient datasets are revolutionizing cancer biology research.

Talking to these researchers offered an eye-opening dive into the intersection of big data and health and excited my imagination and optimism. But at the same time, a question lingered for both Mike and me. If algorithms can diagnose us accurately and help make decisions about treatment, what is the role of the human doctor in this scenario?

We were invited to the recent Stanford Medicine 25 Skills Symposium led by Abraham Verghese, MD, and to gain perspective on that question, we talked to physicians from all around the world. The doctors there were not anti-big-data in any way; in fact, they all agreed that data will greatly benefit the practice of medicine. But we heard many anecdotes about how the presentation of that data to doctors – via computers and tech devices – can intrude on the doctor-patient relationship, and take away from the trust and empathy that we can only find in human connection. It struck me that there’s a clear parallel with the wider grumbles about ever-present smartphones and technology intruding on every day, human moments.

Putting together this episode was a true pleasure. I look forward to a future in which we all receive early diagnoses, and precision health and treatment. At the same time, I agree with the Stanford Medicine 25 group that there are some parts of medicine that can't and shouldn't be handed over to a computer or an algorithm. We are human patients, and at the end of the day, we need human physicians to participate in the healing process.

Leslie Chang is the social media producer for Worldview StanfordRaw Data is supported by the Stanford Cyber Initiative and can be found on iTunes and SoundCloud.

Previously: Stanford Medicine 25 Skills Symposium to focus on building leaders for the bedside medicine movementWhat is big data?Experts at Big Data in Biomedicine: Bigger, better datasets and technology will benefit patientsRising to the challenge of harnessing big data to benefit patients and ‘Omics’ profiling coming soon to a doctor’s office near you?

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