While data mining continues to expand into a growing number of areas, it has yet to gain a foothold in the health care sector. This is primarily due to regulations designed to protect patients' privacy. However, Google co-founder Larry Page recently asserted that such worries are misguided and that the potential benefits of health care data mining should not be ignored.
Page spoke to The New York Times' Farhad Manjoo after delivering the I/O developers conference keynote address in San Francisco. Discussing the various technologies Google is working on and the potential implications of these efforts, Page turned his attention to the issue of health care data mining. As Page noted, current laws effectively prevent Google and other organizations from applying their data collection and analytics efforts to health care information. Page argued that the privacy worries behind these efforts should not be given such weight, especially considering the advantages that health care data mining can deliver.
"Right now we don't data mine health care data. If we did we'd probably save 100,000 lives next year," Page said, according to Manjoo.
Page asserted that many people become so focused on questions of user privacy that they overlook the positive outcomes that data mining and other analytics-based efforts can produce.
On the topic of privacy, Page pointed to the experience of Google Street View as indicative of the way that fears surrounding new technologies are often overblown and, eventually, diminished.
"I think technology is changing people's lives a lot, and we're feeling it," Page said, Manjoo reported. "In the early days of Street View, this was a huge issue, but it's not really a huge issue now. People understand it now and it's very useful. And it doesn't really change your privacy that much. A lot of these things are like that."
Others do not share Page's views. Responding to the Google co-founder's comments, Gizmodo's Adam Clark Estes declared mining health care data to be "a very slippery slope," regardless of the organization conducting the analytics effort.
Yet Estes did not fully disavow the feasibility of data mining in this area. He argued that the ability to anonymize health care data might make it possible to leverage health care data mining without compromising individuals' right to privacy. He therefore concluded that it is "worth revisiting that topic."
Part of the reason why data mining in the healthcare sector holds so much promise for saving lives is the sheer amount of information now being produced. As Estes emphasized, Google is now the industry leader for developing healthcare-related mobile devices and related programs for tracking users' health and behavior.
As The Guardian noted, Google ended its I/O conference keynote by displaying its new Google Fit platform, which incorporates the Android Wear smart watch, sensors embedded on Android smartphones and a bevy of apps designed to help users' better track and understand their own health and behavior. The news source pointed out that Apple unveiled a similar platform, HealthKit, last month.
These and other efforts tremendously increase the amount of information available to organizations for purposes of health care data mining, assuming regulations are altered to enable the practice. This information goes far beyond patient medical records, although data mining could likely be combined with these resources to produce even more in-depth insight.
As health tracking devices and programs become increasingly commonplace, it is very likely that resistance to health care data mining will diminish, hopefully yielding benefits such as those Page highlighted.