The explosion of big data is transforming the way those in health care are diagnosing, treating and preventing disease, panelists at the Big Data in Biomedicine said on its opening day.
During a five-member panel on population health, experts outlined work that is currently being done but said even bigger datasets and better technology are needed to ramp up the benefits from digital data and to save lives.
“Using the end-of-millions to inform care for the end-of-one - that is exactly where we’re going,” said Tracy Lieu, MD, MPH, director of research at Kaiser Permanente Northern California, a health-care network that includes 21 hospitals, 8,000 physicians and 3.6 million patients. “And we think that in a population like ours, in an integrated system like ours, we are in an ideal setting to do personalized medicine."
Stanford Medicine professor Douglas Owens, MD, director of the Center for Health Policy and Center for Primary and Outcomes Research, led the panel on Wednesday. He said that big data is also changing how research is being conducted.
“There’s been an explosion of data of all kinds: clinical data, genomics data, data about what we do and how we live,” said Owens. “And the question is how can we best use that data to improve the health of the individual and to improve the health of populations.”
Lieu said two key trends are central to medical researchers: informatics and genomics. She told attendees that Kaiser utilizes a “virtual data warehouse” with the digital data of 14 million patients dating back to 1960. But Lieu cautioned that the data are not always the means to an end, particularly if the findings are not tested and implemented.
“Sometimes we fail. And we fail when we identify a problem of interest, we make a decision to study it, we assemble the data, we analyze and interpret the results – and then we send them off to journals. So we fail to close the loop,” she said, because researchers typically don’t go beyond the publication of data.
Lieu said Kaiser is now focused on trying to close that loop. "To do that, we need the kinds of tools that you in this group and the speakers at this conference are developing,” she explained. “We need better and better technology for rapidly analyzing and aggregating data.”
Among the other panelists was David Maron, MD, director of preventative cardiology in the Department of Medicine, who talked about the Baseline Study, a clinical research collaboration between Google Life Sciences, Stanford and Duke University.
The baseline study was launched last year with an initial 175 healthy volunteers in the pilot program. Eventually, 10,000 thousands patients are expected to undergo physical exams and provide samples of blood, saliva and other body fluids that can be examined using new molecular testing tools, such as genome sequencing, to look for risk factors or the presence of cancer or cardiovascular disease.
Maron called the baseline study “the Framingham Study of the 21st century,” referring to the landmark heart study under the direction of the National Heart Institute that began in 1948 and ushered in a new era of heart health.
He believes the massive amount of data generated by the new study will eventually create biomedical information that will enable scientists, clinicians and policymakers to work with data scientists on revolutionary medical tools and treatments.
He said each participant in the study would eventually generate 4 terabytes of data. “It’s going to be a lot of data and we’re going to leverage the analytic capacity of our partner, Google, to analyze this data and make some sense out of it so that we have a better understanding of human health and transition to disease," he said.
Beth Duff-Brown is communications manager for the Center for Health Policy and Center for Primary and Outcomes Research.
Previously: On the move: Big Data in Biomedicine goes mobile with discussion on mHealth, Big Data in Biomedicine panelists: Genomics’ future is bright, thanks to data-science tools, Countdown to Big Data in Biomedicine: Leveraging big data technology to advance genomics, Stanford partnering with Google [x] and Duke to better understand the human body and ‘Omics’ profiling coming soon to a doctor’s office near you?
Photo of panel members by Saul Bromberger