Many years ago, I was diagnosed with a form of lymphoma for which there was no treatment. At best I was given 5 years to live. To confirm the diagnosis, sample tissues removed from the lump in my body were shipped to medical facilities around the country. The reports came back with mixed opinions. In the end, those who disputed the lymphoma diagnosis were correct. I didn’t have cancer. The truth is, my physician had misread the original report, a mistake that kept me living under the shadow of a terminal illness for two years.
Patients depend upon a doctor’s diagnosis to make life or death decisions. Unfortunately, medicine is not an exact science. The field is fraught with human error, incomplete data, systems from one institution that can’t communicate with another, and mounds of handwritten, unreadable reports.
Today, medical science is overwhelmed with more information than it can catalogue, much less interpret and share. That’s why two young men have stepped forward to create a digital infrastructure for collecting and collating medical information. Zach Weinberg and Nat Turner are the young Turks who have volunteered and, having founded two previous start-ups, they have enough credibility to attract Google’s backing. (“Can Big Data Cure Cancer?” by Miguel Helft, Fortune Magazine, August 11, 2014 pgs.70-78).
What lies ahead for these two young men is a tasks that may prove to be more difficult than unlocking the secrets of the human genome. Not only does data lie all over the medical solar system, these digital experts must collate the medical codes from a myriad of hospitals and clinics and put that information into “natural-language.” Natural language allows computers to read documents and extract data from any source. That Weinberg and Turner have chosen cancer as their first subject increases their challenge as cancer is a disease with many faces and varying treatments. (Ibid. pg. 76.)
Fortunately, the men will have Big Data on their side. Only a collection system that large could give these two entrepreneurs any hope of building a comprehensive highway of information. The NSA has shown us the dark side of Big Data. Weinberg and Turner intend to show us a side that offers hope.