Will “Big Data” change the way we practice medicine? I think you have to be crazy to answer in the negative on that question. The interesting question is where will we see the most change and how will it develop.
Big data is powered by the fact that computing power and storage has become so cheap alongside the decrease in cost of DNA sequencing. The first genome cost the US government roughly $3 billion. Today, anyone can get their genome sequenced for $1,500. That is a 2 million fold decrease in price. This has led to legend becoming reality: some patients are actually going to their primary care doctor and handing him or her their genome on a flash drive (I know physicians for which this has happened).
I happen to think that the biggest change in medicine accomplished by Big Data is actually in a far less sexy but far more practical field, which is healthcare systems delivery. Last month Medicare released gigabytes worth of claims data for all to see. You can now go online and find out how often your physician charged Medicare, and how much he or she was reimbursed. This shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it is. Right now healthcare is one of the least efficient industries in America, and because of that fact it is crippling our economy.
One big reason for our healthcare system’s inefficiency is lack of customer information. When you buy a car, you can go online, read reviews about your car, and find out whether you are purchasing a quality product and a good deal. With healthcare, you walk into a black box and hope for the best. Now that these healthcare cost and quality data are being released, we’re going to see a sea change: people are actually going to start shopping for healthcare, and providers will compete to provide the best quality care at the best price.
Todd Park, the leader behind the White House’s latest data dump spoke this morning at a conference on Big Data here at Stanford. You can join the conference for free online here www.bigdata.stanford.edu and also tweet along. Highlights so far include Todd Park’s talk, Mike Snyder’s “Personal Omics”, and also Steve Quake estimating that it would cost $700 billion to sequence the genome of every human on the planet.
(About the image: the “heatmap” above is from my work in lab looking at autoantibodies. the brighter the color the higher the level of reactivity.)