Three Converging Trends Transforming the Science of Health Data

As a 30-something-year-old who smoked for a couple of years in college and succumbs to McDonalds once in a while, you know your chance of keeling over from a heart attack or Fred Sanford’s, “The Big One” is low; yet you can’t help thinking about it in a tugging, slightly obsessive, Rafa Nadal’s underwear kind of way. Maybe you’ve even talked to your doctor about it, downloaded a heart healthy nutrition app, or bought a bike because of it.

But what exactly is your risk? Hard to say, really.

Now, what is your risk knowing heart disease occurs 6.8 times as often in your family than in the average family of Eastern European descent living in the Midwestern United States, based on adverse cardiac events occurring among 25 people spread over the last three generations of your family?

What if you walk an average of 12 miles a week based on pedometer measurements collected over the last year, your average blood pressure is 112/72 mmHg based on your iWatch data, your HDL/LDL cholesterol ratio is 3.2 times higher than the average woman your age based on measurements obtained from a reference population of a billion people and you’re an accountant with seasonal allergies?

What lifestyle modifications should you make now if you’ve been under a lot of stress lately, which your wearable device knows by sensing stress related variations in the rhythm, pitch and cadence of your speech as you talk to it throughout the day? How's that for true voice recognition? By the way, it’ll also know you’ve gotten 20% less REM sleep a night over the last three months compared to your previous 2 year average.

What does your personal genomic sequence, which you obtained for less than $500, reveal about your risk of dying from the top 100 diseases in the next ten years based on your DNA and factoring in some of the risks described above?

Life is full of curves and the beauty and tragedy of life is that it is inherently unquantifiable, but at the risk of sounding too much like a Farmer’s Insurance commercial or obsessing about data in an ironically unhealthy way, we can and will know more health data.

In fact, we are about to enter an era of personalized medicine radically more sophisticated and specialized than the medicine of today due to a convergence of three concepts that are currently buzzwords in health technology.

1. Wearables and the Internet of Things:  The number of devices connected to the internet today is approximately 9 billion and that number is expected to skyrocket to 40 billion by 2020, and many of these devices will be so-called wearables and monitoring devices collecting data salient to our personal health. Think watches which measure heart rate and blood pressure, contact lenses which monitor blood glucose levels in diabetics, implantable drug delivery systems which release insulin based on the sugar content of your last meal and an array of other devices which most people cannot imagine but are being developed today in laboratories throughout Silicon Valley and the world.

2. Big Data:  Massive amounts of health data will be mined, cleaned and processed into usable information and disparate, seemingly meaningless data will be focused into actionable data. IBM, Apple, and tech companies are building their computer arsenals now to deal with this coming deluge of data.

3. Cost Containment in Health Care:  Healthcare providers know their costs are rising unsustainably, and they know that monitoring and treating chronic diseases in their early stages is cheaper than managing late stage disease, so they will focus on data driven preventative medicine as a spending containment measure. Data science in the healthcare system is currently in its infancy and lags woefully behind the consumer, marketing, and financial sectors; Facebook, iTunes, American Express, and Amazon have much more of your personal data than your doctor or health insurance company, but the gap may narrow. Cross industry collaboration on data mining methods and health information technology advancements will rapidly advance the healthcare industry’s data knowledge.

Data scientists know that data by itself is useless and that it needs to be synthesized into practical knowledge and insight to make people well. That's the difference between data and information and it's the main challenge in front of us now. Keep an eye on these three transformative trends as they revolutionize the impact and efficiency of healthcare here at home and around the world!

(Photos by Tony Frantz)