[This article was originally published in Essays April 2016]

The world is awash in data and the volume of data is growing exponentially. Consider that in 2011 the amount of healthcare data alone was in excess of 150 exabytes – or three times the amount of everything written to date in this world. This year it’s estimated we will add another one zetabyte of healthcare data, which is thirty times the amount of everything ever written. And with this rising tide of data, most of it unstructured or invisible – from things like doctor’s notes, wearables and x-rays – the challenge lies in how to analyze it, gain insights from it, and apply those insights to drive healthcare innovation.

Harnessing both visible and invisible data can have a profound impact on our healthcare system. It will allow us to better:

  • identify new drug therapies and vaccines for emerging threats such as the Zika virus;
  • understand the role that genetics and the environment play in disease prevention or progression;
  • augment the collective diagnostic power of our doctors, clinicians, and researchers; and,
  • transform wellness across our society as a whole.

Fortunately we are at the beginning of a new era – the Cognitive Era – with the advent of sophisticated computing systems that are capable of aggregating seemingly infinite volumes of structured and unstructured data, and infusing it with a level of intelligence or cognition never before available. These systems work in natural language and have the ability to understand, reason and learn. In fact they never stop learning. And cognitive is a perfect fit for the healthcare system, which is challenged by increasing costs, an aging population, a lack of research resources and tools, and a surge in chronic disease.

In Canada, our legacy of healthcare research and innovation is impressive: insulin; the testing of the polio vaccine; a better understanding of how spinal cords regenerate; the discovery of the cystic fibrosis gene; and HIV-AIDS treatment – the list is lengthy. And now with the advent of cognitive computing, our healthcare future can be just as bright. This new era can help organizations leap forward to advanced solutions spanning clinical research, patient care delivery and population health and wellness.

For example, researchers at the BC Cancer Agency’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre (GSC) are involved in a major research collaboration using cognitive technologies to choose therapies based on a tumour’s DNA. Using cognitive computing, they are running genetic material and medical literature reviews on selected patients whose cancer is considered uncontrolled. Clinicians then compare what IBM Watson – a cognitive system – “sees” with the patient’s current treatment regimen in the hopes of finding something that’s been missed. This is providing doctors with an adjunctive decision-making tool; helping accelerate a more personalized, efficacious treatment.

Recently, the American Cancer Society (ACS) announced they will also use the power of cognitive computing to provide cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers with trusted ACS resources and personalized guidance via a Virtual Cancer Health Advisor app. The challenge of finding the right cancer information often presents yet another hurdle to the approximately 1.8 million people in North America that are diagnosed with cancer each year. Filtering countless health websites for relevant, accurate and trustworthy information is daunting.

This is where cognitive technologies may help.

Once developed, the advisor will anticipate the needs of people with different types of cancers, at different stages of the disease, and at various points in their treatment. It will be dynamic and become increasingly personalized as individuals engage with it, effectively getting “smarter” each time it is used.

Over 100,000 Canadians currently live with Parkinson’s – a chronic degenerative neurological disease – with another 6,600 new cases being diagnosed each year. IBM and Pfizer just announced a first-of-its-kind cognitive research collaboration that could transform care for Parkinson’s patients. Through a system of sensors, mobile devices, real-time analytics and cognitive machine learning, the aim is to provide researchers and clinicians with objective, real-time, around-the-clock disease status information to help inform treatment decisions and speed the development of new and better therapies with little disruption to patients while they go about their lives.

For Canada, a large country with a small population, harnessing the power of cognitive computing is critical to transforming our healthcare system; allowing us to compete on a global scale and get to a healthier future. By capitalizing on the large corporate entities that exist here and collaborating to create unique centres of excellence, like the one recently announced by IBM and Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) in March, Canada can make big strides in surfacing healthcare discoveries; getting healthcare innovation embedded in commercially viable  products or services.

Canada’s researchers no longer need to be hampered by a lack of computational capacity to work effectively. Big healthcare science takes big data, and crunching that data takes big computing power. With the advent of cognitive systems, there is no reason Canada cannot tackle the big healthcare issues and be a leader on the world stage. 

About the Author

Barry Burk, Vice President, Healthcare Industry, IBM Canada Ltd.