Will “big data” transform health research?

Across Ontario, thousands of doctors' offices record and collect patient information electronically. Individually, these files provide valuable insight into a patient's personal health journey. Collectively, these files are a virtual treasure trove of information about our population's health.

"Collating and studying electronic medical records presents one of the greatest opportunities facing health research," says Dr. Frank Sullivan, Gordon F. Cheesbrough Research Chair in Family and Community Medicine at North York General Hospital (NYGH). “It enables us to do mass-scale exploration of chronic diseases such as cancer and diabetes and sheds light into possible causes and best treatments.”

Dr. Sullivan stresses that when studying electronic health records, patient privacy is paramount. “All patient identifiers are removed when the data are moved into highly secure 'safe havens' for analysis," he says. Dr. Sullivan recently gave the James Mackenzie Lecture in London, one of the most prestigious eponymous lectures of the Royal College of General Practitioners.

Dr. Frank Sullivan giving the James Mackenzie Lecture at 2015 AGM of the Royal College of General Practitioners in London, England.

Dr. Frank Sullivan, Gordon F. Cheesbrough Research Chair in Family and Community Medicine at North York General Hospital, giving the James Mackenzie Lecture at the AGM of the Royal College of General Practitioners in London on November 20, 2015.

Traditionally, studying health issues has been done by gathering a group of individuals to represent the broader population. While the practice of studying “big data,” extremely large sets of data that can by analyzed to reveal patterns or associations, is relatively new to health care, it has long been used in census programs and by private industries. Dr. Sullivan first started focusing on big data in Scotland in SCI-Diabetes, a project that ensures every diabetic in Scotland receives high quality care and gives them access to their own data. Another more recent Scottish non-profit initiative is SHARE. It was established to register people interested in participating in health research and sharing their coded data in their various health computer records to check if they might be suitable for health research studies.

“Essentially, it boils down to using computer records to find better treatments and cures for patients and families,” says Dr. Sullivan of SHARE, which is now approaching over 100,000 registrants. “In Scotland, people were very motivated to help play their part in improving the country's health care. I'm finding that the same is true in Canada.”

Doctor discussing a patient's health record.

"Electronic medical records present one of the greatest opportunities facing health research," says Dr. Frank Sullivan.

Dr. Sullivan relocated to NYGH to continue his research due to its leadership in health informatics and the hospital's strong link linkages in its Department of Familyand Community Medicine. He is also appointed as Director of the University of Toronto Practice-Based Research Network (UTOPIAN) a network of the 14 University of Toronto primary care sites working together to improve patient care in community settings. “It's all about linking community physicians with people who have the ability to do clinical research,” he explains. “And, in turn, we develop research expertise amongst these community physicians.”

Through facilitating partnerships between research and primary care, Dr. Sullivan is optimistic more and more physicians will participate in big data initiatives. “We have a real opportunity to transform and enhance the health care landscape by studying these incredibly huge data sets,” he says. “Ultimately, big data could answer some of our most pressing health concerns.”


This article first appeared in the February 2016 issue of The Pulse.

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