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Academic says big data "not a cure-all" for healthcare

Big data is not a “magic weapon” that can solve all our healthcare problems, a senior lecturer at the Kent School of Computing has claimed.

Eerke Boiten, who is also the director of Interdisciplinary Cyber Security at the University of Kent, made the remark in a written response to comments made by Google founder Larry Page earlier this week.

According to Page, 100,000 lives could be saved next year if more was to be done in opening up healthcare information.

However, Boiten believes otherwise, suggesting that big data is just “a real trend” at the moment that will soon come to pass.

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“Big Data isn’t some magic weapon that can solve all our problems and whether Page wants to admit it or not, it won’t save thousands of lives in the near future,” the lecturer claimed.

Boiten notes the potential sharing and analysing healthcare data has, even deeming it “essential,” but adds that the both the UK government and the NHS has the wrong attitude towards it.

“Like Page, [Whitehall] is also presenting a false vision for Big Data. It has said review after review has found that a failure to share information between healthcare workers had led to child deaths. It’s an emotive admission but rather beside the point in the Big Data perspective,” he claimed.

The lecturer admits that some NHS tragedies could have been averted by sharing the right data with the right person, but he claims the Health Service views sharing as “linking and sharing large medical databases between organisations.”

Machines and humans must work together

He believes that medical data sharing can be good in many ways, but people must be wary of “big claims.”

“Using machine learning to process vast amounts of data, such as the information held in healthcare databases, won’t save lives alone,” Boiten claimed.

“Doctors need to be able to ask the right questions and use their unique human qualities to make life changing decisions for their patients. Similarly, researchers still need to formulate their hypotheses and ask the medical databases targeted questions,” he added.

It seems NHS England is yet to master successful use of data to improve patient care. In February the rollout of the controversial scheme – a plan to place patient information in a centralised database – was delayed by at least six months.

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However, the organisation is attempting to improve the way it handles information sharing, recently appointing a chair to a patient data oversight committee.