How big data is having a ‘mind-blowing’ impact on medicine
Dell Services chief medical officer Dr. Nick van Terheyden explains the ‘mind blowing’ impact big data is having on the healthcare sector in both developing and developed countries.
For a long time, doctors have been able to diagnose people with diabetes—one of the world’s fastest growing chronic diseases—by testing a patient’s insulin levels and looking at other common symptoms, as well as laboratory results.
While there has been great accuracy in their diagnoses in the past, the real opportunity in healthcare at the moment, according to Dell Services chief medical officer Dr. Nick van Terheyden, is the role big data can play in taking the accuracy of that diagnosis a step further by examining a person’s microbiome, which changes as people develop diabetes.
“We can come up with a definitive diagnosis and say you have it based on these criteria. But now, interestingly, that starts to open up opportunities to say ‘could you treat that?'” Terheyden said.
He described these new advancements as “mind-blowing.”
“So, there is now the potential to say ‘I happen to know you’re developing diabetes, but I’m going to give you therapy that changes your biome and reverses that process, and to me that’s just mind-blowing as I continue to see these examples,” Terheyden said.
He pinned a major contributor to the “explosion” of data to genomics, saying having additional data will increase the opportunity for clinicians to identify correlations that have previously been poorly understood or gone unnoticed, and improve the development and understanding of causation.
“When the first human was sequenced back in the early 2000s, it was billions of dollars, and many years and multiple peoples’ work and effort. We’re now down to sequencing people in under 24 hours and for essentially less than US$1,000. That creates this enormous block of data that we can now look at,” he said.
Increasingly, Terheyden believes the healthcare sector will see the entry of data experts, who will be there to help and support clinicians with the growing influx of the need to analyse data.
When asked about the impact technology has had on healthcare in developing countries, Terheyden said he believes medical advances will overtake the pace of developed countries, much like how the uptake of telephonic communication has “leapfrogged” in those countries.
He said despite the lack of resources in Africa, for instance, the uptake of mobile devices is strong and networks are everywhere, which he says is having a knock-on effect on the medical sector as it is helping those living in remote areas gain access to clinicians through telehealth.
Research by Ericsson predicted that, while currently only 27% of the population in Africa has access to the internet, data traffic is already predicted to increase 20-fold by 2019—double the growth rate compared to the rest of the world.
Terheyden explained while infrastructure may be rather basic in places such as Africa, and some improvements still need to be made around issues such as bandwidth, telehealth has already begun to open up new opportunities, so much so that when compared to the way medicine is practiced in developed countries, it appears archaic.
“I know there are still some challenges with bandwidth…but that to me is a very short term problem,” he said. “I think we’ve started to see some of the infrastructure that people are advocating that would completely blow that out of the water.
“So, now you remove that barrier and suddenly instead of saying, ‘hey you need go to a hospital and see a doctor to have a test’, we’re saying, ‘why would you?'”
Despite the benefits, Terheyden expects clinicians, particularly in the western world, will be faced with the challenge of coping with how their roles are changing. He pointed out that they are increasingly becoming more of a “guide, an orchestrator, and conductor,” versus the person that previously “played all the instruments, as well as being the conductor.”
He highlighted given how much medical information is out there, believing it doubles every 18-24 months, it would require clinicians to be reading 80-90 hours per week to keep up to date.
“There’s this change in behaviour to longer be the expert,” he said. “You’re not the Wizard of Oz. People don’t come to you and you dispense knowledge; you’re there as the guide.”