Big data, big ideas...

A close look into data and how it's being used

Big ideas always need someone to drive change, according to Professor Glenn Salkeld, Executive Dean, Faculty of the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities.

Every time you fill a script for a prescribed medicine, see a GP, interact with government services apps or even catch a bus, that action is captured as a data point. Wearable devices can capture your exercise and sleep habits. Over time and across the population of the country, that’s a lot of data. By linking the data and putting the information into context, we can build a picture of the nation’s health patterns and behaviours.

Using this ‘Big Data’, statisticians can analyse, look for patterns, associations and optimal predictions and solutions; epidemiologists observe and infer; data scientists and engineers hypothesise, code, build models and predict; economists analyse choices; and clinicians give meaning. Bring all of that expertise together and you are looking at the future of a multidisciplinary approach to health and medicine. That is the power of data science and its companion, decision science. They translate knowledge generated by observational (big) data into better health choices at all levels of health decision making - putting high quality information into the hands of people who need to make informed health decisions. Better information, better decisions, better outcomes for the patients/citizens who are the reason we care about all this.

None of this will happen unless we make it happen. That was the premise for a review of big data and health informatics at UOW. The review brought together leading thinkers (and doers!) from all the disciplines listed above and asked: how can UOW lead the country in data and decision sciences for better health and well-being? What emerged from the review was a plan to create a virtual network of researchers and practitioners across the University - the Data and Decision Science Network (DDSN). The beating heart of this network is NIASRA, The National Institute for Applied Statistics Research Australia, located in the Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences. It is mathematics and statistics that give meaning to big health data and our academics in this field are world leaders.

UOW academics in health and medicine, social sciences, arts, humanities and law provide context for data sciences, and our business academics do likewise for decision sciences. Data without context isn’t going to change clinical or public health practice. We need everybody at the table. We need clinicians, policy-makers and patients to ask the questions. If you are wondering about the role of patients, cast aside any notion that they are passive recipients of health information in the future. Increasingly, technology-enhanced online decision tools will enable people to see how the best available evidence on health care treatments (personalised to their clinical characteristics) combined with their own preferences for the type of care they want, will yield the best health outcomes.

For all the talk that online decision aids and artificial intelligence (AI) will replace doctors and health care providers, nothing could be further from the truth. Whilst big data might allow data engineers to create predictive models for the outcomes of health care choices and AI solutions, these are data driven opinions. AI cannot prescribe a health decision nor patient behavior but equally we do not know what impact AI may have on clinician behavior. Will clinicians question an AI recommendation? How well does AI perform for people in minority populations? Just how far and deep a ‘big data’ approach to health care will go depends in no small part on community and patient consent to such an approach. This issue is addressed in a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) funded research project conducted by Professor Stacy Carter, Director of the UOW Australian Centre for Health Engagement, Evidence and Values (ACHEEV) and colleagues. With the apt title “The Algorithm will see you now”, their study will examine the ethical, legal and social implications of using AI for screening and diagnosis.

UOW is a member of the Digital Health Co-operative Research Centre and has a number of collaborative research projects that advance their goal to improve healthcare for all and to empower patients through use of evidence. UOW also works with key agencies such as NSW Health’s Centre for Health Record Linkage (CHeReL) and the Sax Institute, both custodians of big health data sets and experts in the use and application of big data to health policy and decision-making.

Big ideas always need someone to drive change, along with a clear vision and plan. Our mission is to lead the development of person-centred health care through the rigorous application of data and decision sciences. Our statisticians and mathematicians will lead the way, working hand-in-glove with clinicians, public health practitioners and our colleagues across all the social science disciplines. In doing so, we will need to prepare all of our public health, nursing and medicine graduates for a world in which information, technology and patient choice is an essential part of their professional practice.

Professor Glenn Salkeld

Executive Dean, Faculty of the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, UOW