What is the influence of Big Data in Medicine?

Big data has been redefining how healthcare is delivered. It is not that the existing healthcare system is being discarded but certain significant changes are taking place at fundamental levels. Some changes are most notable: healthcare institutions are increasingly relying on data to build customized, personalized treatment models. The emphasis is on collecting data on the health of patients and based on the data; predict the onset of diseases so that preventive steps can be taken. The data is also helping doctors get a 360 degree view of the patient’s health. Big data has been complementing the existing healthcare system.

State before big data was introduced to healthcare

Before big data was introduced to the healthcare system, the role of data in the treatment of a patient was limited. Hospitals would collect such patient data as name, age, disease description, diabetic profile, medical reports and family history of illnesses, whichever applicable. Such data provides a constrained view of the patient’s health problems. For example, for a patient who has been diagnosed with heart diseases, the typical information gathered would be family history, diet, symptoms, age and other existing diseases. While such information provides a detailed view of the disease, the data is unable to provide other perspectives into the problem. There are other ways also to view the problem from which a better treatment plan can potentially emerge.

In a statistics published in the Nature journal, it has been found that among the 10 highest grossing drugs prescribed in the US helps only 1 in 25 or 1 in 4 patients. And for cholesterol drugs, the success rate is only 1 in 50 patients. So the probability of success is very lower compared to the expenditure made on research, approval and other activities.

imprecision medicine

imprecision medicine

Image Source Link: http://www.nature.com/news/personalized-medicine-time-for-one-person-trials-1.17411

The above image shows the effect of imprecision medicine on patients. But now the paradigm is rapidly changing with the help of big data and IT.

How has big data changed healthcare and medicines?

Big data has added a dimension to the treatment of diseases. Doctors now are able to understand diseases better and deliver accurate, personalized treatment. They are also able to predict recurrences and suggest preventive steps.

Comprehensive view of diseases

Big data has helped healthcare institutions take a 360 degree view of a patient’s health problems. This has led to new findings, novel treatment plans and more accurate diagnosis. Availability of data has brought to attention hitherto unknown factors that are associated with health problems. For example, certain races are genetically more predisposed to heart diseases than other races. Now, when a patient representing one of such races suffers from heart diseases, it is time to examine the data of patients belonging to the same race who have complained of heart problems. It helps to find out more about such patients — dietary habits, lifestyle, genetic structure, family DNA, proteins, metabolites to cells, tissues, organs, organisms, and ecosystems.

Predicting diseases

This follows the first change actually. When a patient is treated, the healthcare institution is able to obtain huge volumes of meaningful data about the patient. The data can be used to predict recurrences of diseases with a certain degree of precision. For example, if a patient has suffered stroke, the hospital can have data on the time of stroke, gap between strokes in case of multiple strokes in the past, influencing events preceding the stroke such as a psychologically stressful event or heavy physical activities. The hospitals can provide clear steps to prevent strokes based on the data.

Wearable devices

Wearable devices can do a wonderful job in detecting potential health problems even if there are no apparent symptoms. To evaluate the health of an apparently healthy person, a doctor needs to prescribe a series of medical examinations which is lengthy and costly. Wearable devices can reveal a number of health indicators based on which a doctor can make certain conclusions and decide on the future course of action. Already, a number of wearable devices and apps are able to measure such parameters as your heart rate, pulse, glucose levels and calorie levels. Though most of the devices available today are being used for recreational purposes, they are metamorphosing into serious gadgets. Already, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a number of glucose monitors.

Impact of big data on personalized medicine

Experts believe that big data is going to increase the efficacy of personal medicines significantly. A number of initiatives are under way to find out ways to improve the effectiveness of personal medicines.

One such initiative has been the cancer research program known as the NCI-Molecular Analysis for Therapy Choice (NCI-MATCH) Trial. This trial is an important part of the National Institute of Health’s Precision Medicine Initiative. The initiative is going to enrol about 1000 people and match specific types of tumors with specific medicines. The people who enrol have had tumors that have not responded to standard cancer treatments. The tumors will be matched with drugs known to produce better outcomes on the basis of certain genetic markers. Based on the outcome of the matching, a database of drugs will be created so that a list of drugs known to be effective for corresponding tumors is available. The initiative is an ongoing one and new types of tumors will be studied and corresponding drugs will be identified. The trial has the potential to unlock the secret of curing rare and fatal cancer types by matching the genome of an individual with the right drugs. A patient with any type of cancer is eligible to enrol for the trial though the program aims to have at least 25% of the total patients to have rare cancer. There are a number of parameters to evaluate whether the medicines are working. One parameter is to observe if the tumor size is shrinking, the second parameter is to find out whether the patient’s condition has worsened in the past 6 months. The researchers will also take into account the side effects of the treatment.

As a result, precision medicine is gaining huge popularity and driving from all the sectors. US have also announced a US$215-million national Precision Medicine Initiative (Nature). It will include establishment of a national database of the genetic and other data of one million people in the United States.

personalized healthcare

personalized healthcare

The above image shows how the personalized healthcare is enabled.


There is no doubt that big data can revolutionize healthcare and personalized medicines. However, the pace of adoption across the globe is still slow and not uniform. Big data has the potential to significantly reduce unnecessary expenses on healthcare across the globe. Since adoption of big data represents a paradigm change, there has been resistance in certain quarters. But as the benefits become more obvious, adoption is going to become smoother. The biggest potential of big data lies in finding drugs for life threatening diseases.

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