By Eerke Boiten, University of Kent | June 28, 2014
Talking up the power of big data is a real trend at the moment and Google founder Larry Page took it to new levels this week by proclaiming that 100,000 lives could be saved next year alone if we did more to open up healthcare information.
Google, likely the biggest data owner outside the NSA, is evidently carving a place for itself in the big data vs life and death debate but Page might have been a little more modest, given that Google’s massive Flu Trends programme ultimately proved unreliable. 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.
Saving lives by analysing healthcare data has become a major human ambition, but to say this is a tricky task would be an enormous understatement.
In the UK, the government has just produced a consultation on introducing regulations for protecting this kind of information alongside care.data, a huge scheme aiming to make health records available to researchers and others who could work with it.
Given the ongoing care.data debacle, this is a broadly sensible document and a promising start for consultation. In particular, it identifies different levels of data. Data that could be used to identify an individual person should not be shared in the same way as other types of data.
But, like Page, the UK government is also presenting a false vision for big data. It has said review after review have found that a failure to share information between healthcare workers has led to child deaths. It’s an emotive admission but rather beside the point in the big data perspective.
It is indeed entirely credible that many tragic failures within the NHS might have been prevented by someone sharing the right information with the right person. Sharing is essential, but when the NHS talks about sharing, it means linking and sharing large medical databases between organisations. Surely no case review has ever claimed that the mere existence of a larger database of information would have got the right knowledge to the right person.
Medical data sharing may be a good thing in many ways, but unfortunately there is no clear case yet that it prevents child deaths and other tragedies. It is only big data, not magic. Preventing child deaths appears to be brought in as emotional blackmail, expected to trump the valid concerns over the NHS’ big data plans.
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