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Employing big data in healthcare: some challenges and perspectives

In this issue of Chronicles of Health and Narrative Medicine, the interview with Xosé Fernández allows us to approach an increasingly important topic for health, namely the use of big data. It is difficult to summarise such a complex topic: we can however introduce it briefly, and lay the foundations for future insights.

Atul Butte, Director of the Institute of Computational Health Sciences at UCSF, argues that big data can be the fastest, least expensive and most effective way to improve people’s health. Big data is a term that describes a large volume of data, both structured and unstructured: but what can be done with these data is more important than their quantity.

The insights we get from big data can help us better understand clinical practice, in order – for example – to improve the results of clinical studies and the work of health professionals. Indeed, there are many voices in favor of a change in this sense in the health sector, which therefore should take measures to modernize and improve its functioning, for the benefit of patients, health workers, and even entire countries: this, even in the face of progressive aging of the population, the increase in chronic diseases and advances in medical technology.

Now that we live longer, the treatment models have changed, and many of these changes are determined by the data. Doctors want to know as much as possible about patients, and as soon as possible, they want to pick up signs of serious illnesses as they arise: early treatment of any disease is simpler and less expensive. Today it becomes easier not only to collect data, but also to convert them into critical insights, which can then be used to provide better assistance: the purpose of analysing health data is to be able to evaluate methods and treatments more quickly, to keep track of what happens to patients, making them feel more involved in managing their health.

The technologies related to big data have already impacted in sectors related to healthcare: for example, in the diagnosis and quantification of lifestyle data in the fitness sector. New technologies (whether specifically designed for healthcare or not) allow patients to easily access specific health parameters (their vital functions, medication or treatment response) and  better relate to doctors, health professionals in general and researchers. Although much of this data remains isolated and fragmented, it has been recognised that the combination of these data sets could be used to improve diagnosis and quality of care.

We report some readings, including the report by the European Parliament and the EMA, which may include a first in-depth bibliography on the challenges and perspective of the use of big data in healthcare:

Why Big Data is a Big Deal for Health: an interview with Atul Butte, Stanford University

HMA-EMA Joint Big Data Taskforce: Summary Report

Big Data for Better Outcomes: Supporting Health Care System Transformation in Europe

Big data in Healthcare: what role for the EU?

Big data technologies in Healthcare – New white paper released by BDVA

AI and Big Data in oncology: How ready are we?

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