How Big Data Will Transform Healthcare

Healthcare has come a long way over the last century, but big data is going to take things even further.

This looming change will be the focus of Big Data: Transforming Patient Care, an evening event at the Big Data Congress taking place in Saint John next month. The event is not only for those attending the congress, but anyone interested in learning how data is revolutionizing healthcare.

The event will feature Jamie Heywood, co-founder and chairman of PatientsLikeMe; Tyler Wish, CEO and co-founder of Sequence Bio, and New Brunswick’s own Erik Scheme, a biomedical engineer and data scientist.

For Jamie Heywood, using data can transform not only how patients are treated, but how we understand health and disease. His passion for leveraging data in healthcare started 18 years ago when his brother was diagnosed with ALS.

“I’m a mechanical engineer and I think about this problem using information theory and system dynamics … The gist of what I see is we’re undergoing a shift from a traditional siloed single-problem-single-solution model in medicine, which initially brought clarity to the noise of the way we practiced medicine in the early part of the century. It brought about a huge advancement in our understanding of health,” Heywood says

“But now it’s reached a limit of how we manage diseases because we define everything in this single-problem-single-solution context where the reality is all of us are extremely complex interactive systems and there is no one thing that breaks.”


Jamie Heywood

This is the issue PatientsLikeMe aims to address. The free website allows patients to share symptoms, treatment info and health outcomes they are experiencing. PatientsLikeMe then turns that information into millions of data points about disease and aggregates and organizes the data to reveal new insights. The company then shares back what they learn with the community and the industry so better products, services, and care can be developed.

“One thing we really focus on here in the concept of digitization. If you try a drug to treat a problem and you have really bad side effects from that drug, then the side effects go away, that information is units of data that would help another human being. But we don’t actually record that information in the medical system,” Heywood says.

PatientsLikeMe digitizes that information into a computable story to help predict how certain drugs and treatments will work on an individual before they even take them, based on the experience of others like them.

“In the future, when we combine patient experience with more data and advanced technology, we can imagine that rather than having to take a drug to find out whether it works or not, a digital version of you will take a digital simulation of all available treatment options. The system will predict what holistic combinations tailored to your individual parameters and needs are likely to work for you,” Heywood says.

“Then you and your doctor would look at those predictions and make a decision together and evaluate if it worked as expected. And at that point in time you’re building a system that’s beginning to learn from the complete experience of everyone that’s going through it. That’s what’s not happening in healthcare now.”

Big data is not only changing how we treat patients, but it’s also changing what we’re treating them with. Newfoundland and Labrador-based SequenceBio is a data driven technology company using medical and genomic data to do drug discovery in a new way that leverages emerging technologies.

CEO and co-founder Tyler Wish says direct application of genomics and big data can help create tailored medication for patients without expensive and risky drug testing.

“So we’re not wasting medications. We’re not wasting healthcare expenditures and resources,” Wish says.


Tyler Wish

“We now have the ability to use genomics and other data to tailor those medications to people they will work for.”

But it just doesn’t stop at medicine. In a time when your 80-year-old grandmother has an iPad and an Internet connection, Wish says big data and technology can transform patient access to their health information.

“There are ways that we can translate complicated medical information back to 80-year-old nana in a way that will empower her to make better healthcare choices and engage her more in her healthcare decision making and wellness,” he says.

Wish says this can repair the disconnect between our healthcare and our healthcare system.

“You don’t think about your healthcare until something’s wrong and you go to your physician. It’s like a tune-up. We need to become much more accountable and engaged with out own wellness and healthcare,” he says. “I think we can do that leveraging technology [and] creating a stronger partnership between our health care system and the people [who] avail of it.”

The Transforming Patient Care event is being hosted by Ansar Hassan, who is a Saint John-based heart surgeon and healthcare researcher by day and standup comedian by night. He says the changes big data can bring are something he’s very much welcoming.

Ansar Hassan

Ansar Hassan

“Research using big data takes research to a whole new level.  It employs big data sets, larger than anything health care researchers are used to employing. Regardless of where these data are coming from, whether they be from electronic health records to wearable devices such as fitbits, the data when collected and analyzed properly will yield valuable inferences that were previously unavailable through the traditional analysis of smaller data sources,” Hassan says.

“So, as a healthcare researcher and as a believer in the positive impact that research can have on healthcare quality and costs, I am a big proponent of exploring the wealth of opportunity that big data has to offer. ”

Hassan says many members of the region’s medical community still have no idea what big data is. But since it’s poised revolutionize the industry on all levels, now is the time for them to learn about it.

“The Big Data Congress is a world class event being held here in Saint John that will serve to educate people from all backgrounds about big data,” he says. “But it will also allow for input from various stakeholders in the field of health care, from patients to providers to hospital administrators to industry representatives, as to how big data research may be shaped to best serve New Brunswick.”