Is Data Sharing a Path to Global Health?
Data is one of the most promising tools in the medical community’s toolkit to help improve health and reduce healthcare costs around the world—if only its practitioners could figure out data sharing.
According to Dr. Stanley Huff, a clinical professor at the University of Utah who’s spent his career studying the intersection of medicine and technology, the next leap forward in medicine won’t be the development of a new therapy or drug. Instead, the innovation with the farthest-reaching impacts will be data sharing among the global medical community.
“There’s tremendous opportunity, and there’s so much that has already been discovered with big data techniques that have led to new knowledge and improved care,” says Dr. Huff, who teaches biomedical informatics at the University of Utah and serves as the chief medical informatics officer at , a not-for-profit healthcare system in Utah and Idaho.
Reflecting on his more than 40-year career, Dr. Huff says that he’s seen the most innovation during the past decade, thanks to advances in technologies like genomic testing, artificial intelligence and big data analytics. As a result, doctors and researchers have been able to find insights that were impossible to discover in smaller data sets—and Dr. Huff believes that it’s just the beginning.
But before anyone can fully reap the benefits of big data’s promise, medical practitioners around the world must commit to sharing their data.
Breaking Through Barriers
Experts like Dr. Huff and Tom Jackiewicz—CEO of Keck Medicine at the University of Southern California and president of the Global Health Insight Network (GHIN), a nascent data-sharing effort—agree on the immense opportunity to improve healthcare outcomes and reduce costs by sharing data, although a number of major challenges remain. Chief among them is the sensitivity of health data, and the industry’s plodding acceptance of new tech.
- A history of paper: Medical data was not originally collected or stored with digital sharing in mind. As a result, information from different sources can be inconsistent or incompatible, Jackiewicz says.
- Best insights can be hidden in unstructured data: “We still have a lot of unstructured data in those medical records,” Jackiewicz says, “and I think the most important nuggets are in [doctors’] dictated notes.” Pulling out those insights and organizing them into searchable, comparable data sets will take significant time and resources.
- Privacy and security regulations: Healthcare data can be anonymized, but, as with any data set, even the most stringent security precautions aren’t 100 percent foolproof. “There’s no technical solution that I know of that would protect patients 100 percent and still allow their data to be used for research or other uses that would improve the quality of medicine,” Dr. Huff says.
A Foundation for a Global Health Data Set
Despite these hurdles, the medical community largely recognizes the importance—and urgency—of freeing healthcare data from its silos. The global response to recent public health crises offers a model. The Zika outbreak, for example, spurred several data-sharing efforts among public health agencies and researchers. Dr. Huff says that such efforts were instrumental in helping medical professionals working in affected areas to treat patients and to prevent the virus’ spread.
New initiatives are also cropping up around the world. Jackiewicz leads the recently launched GHIN, which aims to pool clinical data (from primary care to surgery) among a network of hospitals in Australia, Europe and the United States to reduce costs and improve outcomes.
“What we’re working to do in today’s world is to stop the outliers,” says Jackiewicz. “It’s clear from Europe and Australia and the U.S. that we’re all facing the same problems, which is an aging population, more demand for healthcare, and rising costs. The impetus behind [GHIN] is the idea that we should learn from each other.”
The More Data Sharing, the Better
Jackiewicz says there’s no reason for the efforts to stop at the hospital door. Others in the healthcare chain, including social workers and first responders, could provide valuable data that would help to improve patient outcomes and allow lawmakers, healthcare networks, and public service organizations to make informed budgetary decisions based on real-time needs.
What’s more, the amount of health data is sure to balloon as sophisticated genome sequencing techniques mature, and everyday wearable devices record health data.
While it’ll certainly take time for the medical community to address its global data-sharing challenges, Jackiewicz is optimistic that doctors and researchers are on the path toward using—and sharing—data much like they would use a vaccine to make their corners of the world a healthier place.
“We’re now benchmarking and beginning to understand more about what this data means, and figuring out how it can make a huge difference,” Jackiewicz adds. “That, to me, is a perfect opportunity.”
This content is produced by WIRED Brand Lab in collaboration with Western Digital.