How is big data improving health and health care?
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Every heartbeat contains insights. Every breath is a packet of information. Our bodies emit a steady stream of data about our health and development, and about infections and maladies. There’s so much information, in fact, that normal human observation can only capture a tiny percentage of it.

Carolyn McGregor uses intelligent machines to capture and analyze that information. No data is discarded or lost. With advanced learning algorithms, she can tap into a flood of information identify illnesses faster, more accurately and earlier.

“High-speed photography can slow down complex situations like a bursting water balloon, so that we can understand step by step how that process unfolds,” she says. ”We do something similar with each beat of the heart, each breath we take, the movement of oxygen through our bodies. We have created the platform to do the critical care equivalent of high-speed photography.”

McGregor’s lab has already done significant work for premature babies under observation in neonatal intensive care units. Here data analyses can identify dangerous infections in a newborn a day before the first human-observable symptoms can be detected. This work has garnered her much attention, but the applications for her work also can be used in many other healthcare areas.

“I am really excited about the potential to apply the techniques we’ve developed in critical care to mental health,” she says. “We could give people who live with mental health issues new tools to assist themselves and their healthcare providers.”

McGregor’s work fits into the umbrella category of “big data,” a phenomenon that has revolutionized almost every scientific field of university. It begins with a exponential increase in the abundance of data. It builds through new tools that allow researchers like McGregor to make sense of that data. And the power of all that information is increased again by expanded ability to combine different types of data.

For instance, bio-signs like pulse, breathing and body temperature could be combined with information about physical activity, social interaction, and other contextual factors, allowing software to flag risks and dangers in ways that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago.

Whether it is a days-old baby or someone who has spent a lifetime struggling with mental health issues, McGregor’s tools can reveal new and better ways to improve health and wellbeing.



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