We need tools to meaningfully interpret health data

We generate it every minute of every day of every week of every month of every year. Data, in countless forms. Of recent and growing interest to a great many people is how this data can be use to improve health (not just sell people more stuff).

Wear a FitBit or Jawbone? Amazing source of activity information. Check in on Foursquare? Insight into dietary habits. Post on Twitter? Sentiment analysis around mood. From credit card purchases to Facebook posts, the list goes on and on.

Add to this the reams of information generated from an individual’s search history on Google and data entered when signing up for certain products (life insurance, etc.), and we have what some have termed the “shadow” health record. Collectively, it offers a rich and complementary trove of insights to the traditional health information that we physicians and others in the healthcare system document in electronic health records.

The next challenge is figuring out what to do with all that data. We need the tools to collect all of the information in one place — a virtual clearinghouse where people can see and review all of the data that is being collected about them. Not only do they need to make sure that it is accurate, but also they could take the opportunity to get a glimpse into what others know about them, something amazing in its own right.

From there we need tools to analyze the data. To this point, already there is an army of data scientists feverishly developing algorithms that make sense of information so it can provide useful insights: Does behavior on social media predict your mood? Do purchasing patterns point to certain dietary habits? Add this to electronic health record data and we can start to paint a much richer picture of an individual’s health.

To make this happen, of course, individuals will need to give companies offering those services the necessary permissions to aggregate that information. Often, it can be a tough sell. However, in this case, the results have a clear and easy-to-understand translation to personal use and benefit, not just corporate profit.

What would be in it for a company that provided this service I am not yet sure. Further, since few patients or their primary healthcare providers are data scientists, such companies will need the analytical tools to help people meaningfully interpret their data.

As of yet, this service doesn’t exist, but I think it will, and I’m convinced it will be big. From physicians combining these behavior measures with what’s already recorded in electronic records to make diagnoses to individuals harnessing the insights to make lifestyle changes, the possibilities are endless. Most importantly, the motivation to explore them could be great. After all, what could be more important than continuing to improve the way we understand ourselves? Especially so when wellness is the reward.

Peter Alperin is a healthcare technology and data analytics consultant and former vice-president, medicine and products, Archimedes. He blogs at The Doctor Blog.

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