The Google of Medicine

04/13/2012 11:40 EDT | Updated 06/13/2012 05:12 EDT

We live in an age when the stethoscope, one of modern medicine's oldest tools, and the microchip, the device powering the digital revolution, are now linked. It presents the most exciting healthcare breakthrough we have today.

Call it the age of Medical Meta Data. It's the focus of a cutting-edge conference taking place in Vancouver June. 5, called The Data Effect.

It is hardly news that governments have been collecting our medical records, as well as demographic information, and placing it in vast digital data bases for instant retrieval. Doctors in developed health-care systems can now often assess your medical history with a push of a button.

But it only scratches the surface now that we've linked the stethoscope and the microchip.

Add in the rapidly evolving science of computational analytics -- using algorithms and breathtakingly fast computers to analyze health data -- and you get a revolutionary opportunity; the power to sift through those vast troves of our collective bits and bytes to identify previously unnoticed patterns and anomalies. This can save lives and billions of dollars spent in healthcare.

Researchers explain it like this: Use these new tools to delve into the data, which contains the fine-grain of individuals, and how they react to drugs and treatments, and you can discover things it would take years for human researchers on their own to discover, if they ever could.

Mining medical meta data can unearth overlooked negative effects of a drug or, conversely, reveal unexpected benefits, and new treatments. Track how a drug has performed over a vast population, and you might discover what doses are most effective, which are wrong-headed or perhaps dangerous, and even how specific drugs can be tailored to the genetic and lifestyle traits of individual patients.

Open up medical meta data to analytics and you can find out if a medical procedure really gets the results we want. Or it might reveal diagnostic and treatment mistakes we are making and suggest overlooked ways of improving health care. Plug in genetics, a factor that often influences how medicines and treatments work on an individual basis, and you are suddenly looking at the possibility of bespoke medicine -- health care tailored to an individual, in much the same way as a custom-made suit.

The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that such uses of medical meta data could create $300 billion in value annually for the U.S. health care system. However, it would take time for that to happen because U.S. health care data isn't yet collected on a population-wide basis to offer optimal data sets for analysis.

British Columbia however, is ahead of the curve.

For four decades now, Canada's western-most province has been a world leader in collecting and digitizing health and demographic data of all its citizens. Moreover, it has linked much of this data to the heath care numbers of individuals. That means you can follow an individual's, or a group of individuals', pathway though the health-care system, to see precisely how drugs and treatment worked.

Yet almost every researcher you talk to will also acknowledge this public data resource is not being used to the degree it should be. Why?

In part the answer is privacy. Big Data -- what data-base linking and analysis is sometimes called -- can easily morph into worries of Big Brother if privacy safeguards are not in place. Yet researchers will tell you that technologies and laws exist to ensure individual information is stripped off all data research, guaranteeing privacy.

Another stumbling block is who gets to use this public data resource, for what purposes and who profits from the results? But we already have the ethics boards and public-policy decision makers who can make those calls.

B.C. has built up a world-class database for health-care research. It will help ensure the province, and Canada, are international centers of excellence in health-care research. It's time our best minds and policy makers make a bold move, open up the data and unleash is benefits.