Monday, June 3, 2013

A journey into the potential of big medical data

By John Gonzales | May 29, 2013
My colleagues and I embarked on a data pilgrimage last week -- the good ships of Southwest Airlines standing in for the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria. Our destination: the Healthy Communities Data Summit in the cyber frontier of San Francisco.
But before you sound the nerd alert, or hokey analogy alert, consider some of the enlightened comments that came from data experts who were just as aware of the limitations of their groundbreaking work as they were of its potential.  
“We understand our applications are useful and important, but they are not going to be the end for systemic problems,” said Rebecca Ackerman, a fellow at the nonprofit Code for America.
The organization is comprised of web geeks, city experts and tech industry leaders working to harness local government information systems for the good of the community.
Still, what Ackerman and several other panelists were getting at was the way in which data can provide powerful insight into what drives systematic and social- based medical problems. But how information alone cannot solve those problems.
As John Kim, a co-director at the Advancement Project put it; data is often “painting the lines on the field” but not winning the game.
That’s not to say that identifying troubling medical trends is not the precursor to solving them. Kim’s presentation on behalf of the public policy change organization he helps direct underscored hospital shortages in communities that needed them the most.
Hospitals have shuttered in poor, mostly minority communities for decades, and a data map sharply revealed this dearth of medical care around our city centers.
And in some cases, the collection of data is uniquely positioned to track health behaviors in real time.  
Asthmapolis is an application that uses asthma inhaler sensors and advanced analytics to identify patients who need help controlling the disease. It also identifies places where attacks are frequent. Using the app, asthma attack hotspots could be pinpointed down to a given apartment building.
Mark Gehring, president and co-founder of Asthmapolis, based in Madison, WI., said asthma suffers who participate often “get our report and learn for the first time that they are not controlled.”
“We should be able to predict in the future that a given community has a certain asthma risk,” he said.
Note: The Healthy Communities Data Summit was sponsored by the California HealthCare Foundation, which also funds the Center for Health Reporting. Center for Health Reporting staff and editors attended the Summit as independent journalists seeking information and sources on the cutting-edge use of medical data. 

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