BIG DATA is Changing Healthcare

Professor Datuk Dr. A Rahman A Jamal


Everyone is talking about Big Data (BD) nowadays. Big nations and big companies are harnessing big data. It is said that Google arguably has the biggest data amongst all. Facebook, Linked In and other social media platforms also all have big data. Banks have big data too and it is not difficult to see what they do with all the data. The big retailers and supermarket chains also have big data. Some of them do data mining to see the pattern of purchases of each individual and also the timing of each purchase to then plan for their marketing and also the brochures which they send to each household. It was once reported that one big retailer in the USA, via mining big data, can predict with 97% accuracy about the gender of the newborn baby of each of their pregnant customer based on their purchases in store and even more discerning, the expected time of delivery! Our smartphones are collecting Big Data too via the Apps which we use every day.

There is also plenty of Big Data in healthcare. Every hospital will have its own set of Big Data. The only question is whether the data is already digital or still in manual form. Big Data in manual case notes are not that useful and especially it is not linked with the laboratory, radiological or pharmacy data. Manual notes will have many missing data. Big Data from the electronic medical records are the one which really has the potential to transform health care. Big Data allows us to know the readmission rates of patients to the hospital with the same diagnosis and this will let us know how good we are in discharging our patients at the appropriate time. Big Data allows us to know the average cost of every procedure using the diagnostic research grouping (DRG) and ICD coding. We can even compare the efficiency and performance of each of our surgeon or physician based on treating a similar group of patients (plus revealing those who are the biggest spenders and those who have the biggest number of complications from procedures). Big Data will reveal to us which disciplines are our strengths in terms of diseases outcome and survival. Big Data will also show us the trend of admissions and help the administrators plan for future budget as well as expansion. Big Data can also come up with a risk profile of each of our patient (via predictive modelling) by gathering all their clinical and laboratory data plus their medical histories.

UMBI certainly has gathered big data over the 13 years since its inception. The Malaysian Cohort project has data from 106,000 participants and the data are all in the digitized format and stored in secure databases. We are just beginning to harness these data and asking key research questions. Our research using the omics technology (genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics and methylomics) has also generated a massive amount of data. Remember that whole genome sequencing of each tumour generates 3 billion Gigabases and we do this at a 30x coverage hence giving 90 GB for each sample. UMBI will soon launched our own Genome Database which will have the genome, exome, proteome and methylome data from diseases such as cancers and also other non-communicable diseases. But those data won’t be that useful if we don’t have the comprehensive phenotypic data i.e. data about the patients’ diseases, clinical presentation, accurate signs and symptoms, exposure data, lifestyle data, treatment and outcome data.

Finally, when we talk about Big Data we always mention the 7 attributes or the 7 Vs i.e. volume, velocity, variety, validity, veracity (accuracy), value and visibility. If you are not into Big Data yet, then this is the best time to start thinking and doing. BIG DATA will transform healthcare and allow the 4Ps of medicine to be practiced: Precision, Predictive, Preventive and Participatory.