The Digital Health Hope: Your Health and Big Data: Holy Grail or Orwellian Nightmare?

The Digital Health Hope: Your Health and Big Data: Holy Grail or Orwellian Nightmare?

This is part two of RealClearHealth's five-part series: The Digital Health Hope. Each Friday, Dr. Kevin Campbell will explore the world of potential that digital health offers.

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What is Big Data All About?

The intersection of digital technology and health care has led to a new world of potential in the medical industry. And while other industries have focused for years on big data, health care is just now beginning to take advantage of its potential. Large data sets are now providing us with the ability to generate new questions and, more importantly, answer old ones. However, the sheer amount of data is not the most important issue—it is what is done with the data that will revolutionize health care and likely change the way disease is approached in the coming decades.

While big data in health care has an enormous upside and can become the holy grail all of us in medicine have been searching for, the potential for abuse is there—could George Orwell’s 1984 “thought police” begin to control our daily lives with such unprecedented access to personal information based on massive data sets?

Strictly speaking, there are four Vs that characterize big data—volume, velocity, variety, and veracity. Most experts agree that these principles not only guide the way we approach big data now, but that they will continue to do so in the future.  

  • Volume: Health care organizations can collect data from a wide variety of sources including electronic medical records, business transactions, wearables, sensors, and social media—just to name a few.

  • Velocity: Data can be collected at dizzying speeds, but the ability to identify and process relevant data without missing any vital information presents an enormous challenge.

  • Variety: Big data may come in many forms—from very structured classic numeric sets to information generated by multiple types of digital content. Structured data refers to information with a high degree of organization, such as numerical data—and comprise data sets that are easily searchable. Unstructured data has no rules—a picture, a video, a tweet, an audio clip—but they all express ideas and thoughts. This diversity of digital data adds to the challenge presented by velocity.

  • Veracity: This refers to the trustworthiness of data. There are always discrepancies in the data that is collected—in other words, garbage in equals garbage out. It is vital that attention is given to determine the actual reliability of the data collected before drawing significant conclusions.

Big Data in Health Care

Health care data may very well be the answer to medicine’s biggest mysteries. In many ways, big data in health care may be more complex than in every other space—not only are health care systems dealing with the economics of running a successful organization, they also are collecting information about disease, access, utilization, treatment plans, and more. The Electronic Medical Record (EMR), while subject to privacy and HIPAA regulations, continues to archive hundreds of petabytes of data every single day. This data currently remains largely untapped. Tap it and the worlds of genomics and personalized medicine open up in exciting ways.


Mapping the human genome has been the focus of much research for the last several decades. Scientists agree that our genetic code is what makes each of us who we are. In addition, our DNA also predisposes us to certain diseases and certain cancers. Through the analysis of genetic patterns and the manipulation of DNA, we may be able to provide new treatments and cures for once incurable diseases. It’s like a crystal ball for our health; a peek at our genetic future that offers the chance to treat and prevent diseases before they are diagnosed.

Personalized Medicine

Strictly speaking, personalized medicine can be defined as innovation that enables real-time diagnosis and specialized and individualized treatments. This is the next obvious step in the progression from genome mapping to treatment. Additionally, the expansion of remote monitoring and wearable technology will continue to allow for more personalization of health care. According to Dr. Eric Topol, a thought leader and innovator in the world of personalized medicine, monitoring “is the essence of digitizing a human being. For medical purposes, it's getting all the essential data, and it will be the information to radically transform the future of medicine.” 

Patients want certainty in treatment, but medicine is often uncertain. This makes understanding and capturing the genome a holy grail for physicians, as it will push personalized medicine to include disease-specific treatment on the individual genome level. This delivers certainty that the specific needs of a patient's body are anticipated and met throughout treatment while minimalizing side effects. Big data, through genomics and personalized care, can remove a large amount of the uncertainty in medicine.

What Are the Potential Downfalls of Big Data in Medicine?

As with most innovations in the digital world, the application of big data is not without risk. Tech-savvy individuals with bad intentions can manipulate people through big data, and foreign governments—including Russia, China, and North Korea—have notoriously used it to control their populations. When it comes to health care we must balance patient privacy with potential innovations. If the collection and analysis of private health data is not done in an ethical and secure manner, the potential gains will be limited by Orwellian fears.

What’s Next?

Ultimately, both doctors and patients will benefit from the insights that big data will provide. The innovations provided by big data in the digital health age have the potential to completely change the way medicine is practiced in the US. Currently, we are a medical system based entirely on the treatment of disease—this is expensive, time consuming, and can result in significant morbidity and mortality for patients. The transformation provided by digital health’s big data allows our health care system to finally focus on the prevention of disease.  By focusing on prevention, we will be able to reduce the prevalence of debilitating diseases—reducing costs and patient suffering along the way. Big data and digital health is the answer in medicine. It is right in front of us, being collected (either knowingly or unknowingly) by doctors and patients alike.  We must use this data and seize this unique opportunity to transform health care forever.   


Dr. Kevin Campbell is an internationally recognized Cardiologist and On Air Television Medical, Health and Wellness expert.  He appears regularly on Fox News, Fox Business, CBS and many other national media outlets.  A pioneer of the use of social media and digital technologies in healthcare, Dr. Campbell also is an accomplished journalist, blogger and the author of two books.

Dr. Campbell completed his Cardiovascular Fellowship training at Duke University and has practiced medicine for more than 17 years.

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