Big Data Is a Big Deal

Big data. You probably have heard this term, but what does it mean, and why should it matter to us in academic medicine? This omnipresent buzz phrase stands not only for the explosion of data generated by today’s computer-driven innovations like electronic health records, but also the potential for using this wealth of information to push the boundaries of our fourfold mission: research, teaching, patient care and community engagement.

UCLA, along with the other four University of California medical campuses, is collaborating to create one of the largest – if not the largest – health-data repositories in the world. Because of the size of our clinical enterprise, UCLA will be the biggest contributor to this knowledge bank. These enormous caches of data, relating to every individual we treat, will provide researchers with a breadth and depth of information for their studies that have been unheard of until now. This means that they will have an entire universe of data to mine for their research rather than a small sample.

For the clinician, it means being able to evaluate a patient’s clinical presentation or test results against a quarter-of-a-million patients with similar indicators, in order to make the best possible diagnosis and prescribe the optimal treatment plan.

In education, we will be revamping our curriculum and training our future doctors to incorporate big data into everything they do as physicians and creating a new category of specialists in health informatics.

Finally, our communities – locally, statewide and around the globe – will benefit because big data will enable us to collect and analyze information about large populations to provide more robust and sophisticated knowledge about persistent and knotty issues such as healthcare disparities, early detection of epidemics like avian flu, and more effective prevention and treatment of widespread conditions like asthma.

Our challenge is this: UCLA must be willing to move vigorously, to build partnerships with the developers of new technologies and care models, and to utilize the more than 3-million records in our own UCLA repository, as well as the 12-million patient records in the entire UC trove. With leadership and action, we can demonstrate to the public the enormous benefit for patients and communities from this research as it is shared to speed improvements in care.

I have no doubt we can meet this challenge. The David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and UCLA Health have an abundance of talented individuals who not only have the skills to handle the technical aspects of this brave new world, but also the overarching commitment to heal humankind.

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