Imagine a smartphone app that predicts what medical conditions you're likely to suffer from and tells you how to avoid them. You may be able to download one sooner than you think.
Such apps would tell you what to eat, how much to exercise and when to visit the doctor based on the analysis of medical research, your medical history, family medical records and medical records of strangers of the same sex, weight, age and ethnicity.
"The quality and insight into our health will be dramatically improved by the quality of data and the ability to bring it all together," said Craig Wentworth, principal analyst for MWD Advisors.
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Telehealth is a fast developing industry. Existing apps allow users to monitor blood pressure and blood sugar, while apps like Fitbits and Nike+ measure different aspects of fitness. Together such apps can provide insight to users' overall health.
Privacy concerns still rife
However, the growth of big data in the health industry will only take place once privacy concerns are addressed.
In February, privacy concerns led the U.K. National Health Service to postpone the implementation care.data. The database aimed to collate anonymous information from patients to help doctors and health organizations better spot emerging health trends and provide treatment suggestions.
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Even though care.data would have remained anonymous, the program met significant resistance amid concerns about how personal data would be shared and handled.
"Health data is not the same as sharing marketing data, like where you live or what washing powder you use. It's a lot more personal," said Wentworth.
"Before we can use big data in health, we need to build trust and to do that we need an open conversation. Companies who are brokering the big data conversation need to be crystal clear about what patient data will be used for. The use of big data in health needs to be gradual, allowing people to choose between opting in and opting out."
Additionally, the sharing of self-collected data would require another major cultural shift, Wentworth said.
"It's one thing for you to know how many steps you walked in a day, and what your blood pressure is, but it's another thing to want to share that data," said Wentworth.
"Maybe someday sharing that data will mean your health insurance costs less, but even if this is the case, there will still be people who won't want to trust insurance providers with their data," he added.
Future of big data in health
Big data analytics could save the American health care system $300 billion per year and the European public sector €250 billion, according to a 2011 report by the McKinsey Global Institute.
Big data analysis is already being used to make diagnoses in some hospitals. In Canada, Toronto Hospital uses big data to detect blood infections in premature babies and uses IBM's analytics technology to monitor changes in heart rate, breathing and blood pressure to help predict potential changes in a baby's condition.