Big Data Assimilation

In early October, I wrote a post entitled, Big Data and Brand Management.  In observing the Pub’s recent visit tracking activity that post has been getting some attention – particularly from the Netherlands.  I wish I had the time to investigate further to possibly understand why.

I do know that the subject of Big Data and Healthcare is quickly becoming one of the most intriguing – if not controversial, and to many, threatening – side shows of the big show that is Healthcare Reform and the impending implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

In the IT world this growing attention is seen as an anticipated awareness among the less informed masses to a level of consciousness they achieved over a decade ago.  But for all that foresight, there has been precious little headway made in addressing some very critical issues of access and security.  And that is because those issues are not clearly defined, have dramatic implications regarding personal privacy and must be framed within a context of assumptions about the future that are widely debatable and lacking entirely for empirical support.

There is a lot at stake here:  a huge potential for solving some very challenging social problems – yet just as great potential for infringing upon personal liberty.  While I share the justifiable concern over protecting the privacy of individual patient data and information, I believe that concern is clouding an even greater story here; and that is the alluring diagnostic trajectory that Big Data has launched us upon.

In combining Big Data (large static storage requirements) with highly complex  analytical algorithms (large dynamic memory capacity) requiring tremendous computing capacity (processing speed) what we are essentially doing is seeking to replicate and accelerate the thinking ability of the human brain.  The historically great equalizer of human intelligence has been a life’s experience.  To be sure, there are ways to broaden exposure to circumstances and events that contribute to such experience, but there is no way to accelerate the natural course of observable events, which ultimately comprise the sum total of that experience – nor the wisdom of maturity to make good use of it.

In the book, Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, he explains the concept of rapid cognition: a fascinating treatise on how our minds instantaneously sort through and combine billions of observational data elements from our life’s experience, analyze the meaning of that data and then form a reasoned judgment about what we have just observed through our senses in a matter of a few seconds.  This is often also referred to as intuition, or a gut feel.  It’s something that has saved many lives owing to physicians’ diagnostic capabilities.

What many clinicians fear in a world of Big Data is an unproven overreliance on information technology to supplant or replace that diagnostic capability (or intuition, if you will).  While, in the aggregate, some of that concern may understandably be driven by a fear of professional obsolescence, I think the much more prevalent concern is challenging whether and when a machine will (ever) be able to truly replace the intuitive capability of the human mind.

And that really is at the heart of the longer-term Big Data dilemma, even if the focus right now is on privacy and protection.  I don’t mean to diminish such concerns, but I do believe we will ultimately be able to address those relevant concerns satisfactorily.

A much more difficult challenge, however, is assessing and understanding whether machines will eventually be able to capture the collective human knowledge and experience that clinicians currently rely upon and be able to analyze and apply that information in a way that achieves better overall patient outcomes than application of human assessment, analysis and reasoning.  And, if so, will patients be able to have access to that computing capability without needing human interface?

Then, what is the role of doctors in the future? Will there be a need for them? Will those who would have otherwise employed their talents in becoming physicians be the future engineers and programmers that work to develop, upgrade and enhance the computing capability of the new electronic caregivers?

A lot to think about.  Big Data offers a lot bigger challenges than just worrying about who owns the data.  The real concern is who is going to control the owner of the data – and how? Star Trek fans, think Borg.  Is that where we’re headed?

What do you think?

Cheers,
  Sparky

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By Dr. Bill Thomas

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