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Making It Personal: Why Everyone Should Care About Big Data

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For most of us, the term "Big Data" sounds pretty remote from our own experience -- and not particularly relevant. An explosion of data, from millions of sources, flowing constantly around the globe seems scary or unfathomable. The term produces uneasy feelings of "Big Brother" or seemingly-random Twitter-fed statistics on how likely we are to get hit by lightening and attacked by a grizzly in the same week.

I can't speak for all the other applications of Big Data, but in health care, it holds tremendous promise. It has the potential to impact every person, healthy or sick. Big Data will lead to stunning advances in disease diagnosis and treatment. For example, women may soon be able to forego the yearly emotional trauma of waiting for mammogram results, because Big Data will enable physicians to more precisely define each woman's risk and plan future screenings with greater accuracy. Big Data will help determine whether men need to undergo prostate cancer surgery or choose less aggressive treatments by identifying the differences between slow-growing and aggressive forms of the disease. It also promises to assess the risk of heart disease later in life, based on our health status as teenagers.

The addition of genetic information magnifies Big Data's ability to help keep people healthy. Genomics aims to discover the basis of heritable traits and understand how genes work to prevent or address disease. Gene sequencing, mapping and analyzing creates mountains of data that, in combination with other clinical information, will be able to create a detailed picture of disease risk and its most effective treatment. This can be applied broadly to entire patient populations based on geography, ethnicity and health status or used to extend our understanding of an individual's genomic profile to help develop unique prevention or treatment plans. As a result, we may soon see Web-based patient profiles that aggregate genomic data with other types of Big Data to produce "risk map" mobile apps that people can download to a smartphone -- with customized advice for maintaining good health.

And if you do end up in the hospital, Big Data will significantly impact your treatment and outcome. Hospitals generate mountains of new information every day. Just capturing it all is a struggle for some, and knowing what to do with it is a challenge for most. But this is the dawn of a new era of open information.

Big Data requires the seamless integration of information throughout the hospital environment, including admissions, records, nursing, diagnostic imaging, transitional care, rehabilitation and home care. This information will also be shared comprehensively with patients and families through patient portals, individual Web sites and enhanced presentation of clinical data in formats easily accessible by patients and families. Within the decade, barriers to pooling and sharing clinical information will disappear as hospital administrators, clinicians and researchers gain universal access to Big Data within and beyond the boarders of their own institutions. And almost as a by-product, Big Data will help dramatically reduce the cost of healthcare, improve transparency for patients and support the delivery of a more holistic patient experience.

It's all happening right now: Researchers around the world are investigating ways to access, analyze and apply healthcare Big Data. Corporations are looking for ways to leverage it to support their product development. And my own company has recently built and deployed with two of our partners a new, cloud-based clinical image management system that enables the local and remote evaluation, collection and management of a vast amount of Philips MicroDose SI breast imaging data from two international clinical sites.

More and more, we will see patients learning about, interacting with and embracing Big Data as if it actually matters to them. Because -- whether it's how they're treated in the hospital or how they keep themselves healthy at home -- it does.

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