It’s no secret that a rising flood of data, from the results of sophisticated genetic tests to the vital signs recorded by your smartphone, is transforming the way we approach health and wellness. But one of the pioneers of that trend says big data could well shift the focus of the quest for wellness from the hospital to the home.
“I think the most powerful unit for scientific wellness is the family,” Leroy Hood, co-founder of Seattle’s Institute for Systems Biology and chief science officer at Providence St. Joseph Health, said during a Wednesday night forum on the future of health.
The forum was hosted by the Institute for System Biology’s headquarters as part of Town Hall Seattle’s science lecture series.
Hood and the evening’s two other speakers — Howard Frumkin of the University of Washington School of Public Health and John Aitchison, president and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research — agreed that big-data approaches will change our perspectives on the world and our own health.
Those approaches could extend even to the way we cope with climate change, Frumkin said. For example, he’d love to have enough data analytics to predict the onset of an El Niño weather pattern, and gauge its effect on rainfall, agriculture and population health for a specific region of Africa.
Frumkin said all that analysis could be combined to anticipate, and potentially head off, future crises. “These are the kinds of seeds we need to be developing to be drought-tolerant, or these are the kinds of crops we need to be providing, or these are the kinds of housing policies we need to be developing to blunt the impacts that we can forecast,” he said.
Aitchison said a similar big-data approach could be applied to epidemiology. “We would like to use these data analytics to make predictions of disease before they happen,” he said.
For most people, personal health and wellness will be where the big-data revolution hits home. Literally.
In addition to his work at Providence and ISB, Hood is the co-founder of Arivale, a Seattle startup that combines health data analysis and personal coaching to boost its clients’ wellness. (Check out GeekWire’s yearlong series tracking how Arivale’s system works.)
Coaches, friends, co-workers, social-media buddies and apps all help to support progress toward wellness, Hood said, but the real power of health information comes to the fore when entire families take part in a program.
“If you study families together, rather than sporadic individuals, you can use the principles of human genetics to learn enormously more about the individuals within that family,” Hood said.
He said the insights gained through big data could soon crack the stubborn mysteries of maladies such as Alzheimer’s disease.
“What we hope to do within three to five years is, one, to be able to diagnose Alzheimer’s at the very earliest transition, and two, to use complex multimodal therapies to reverse the disease on 90 or 95 percent of the individuals,” Hood said. “And we think, in principle, we can do that with all chronic diseases.”
That would be a big deal, because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 86 percent of the nation’s $2.7 trillion worth of health care expenditures are for people with chronic diseases and mental health conditions.
“What I see is that, in a 10-year period, we can migrate wellness care largely from the hospital or the clinical practice to the home,” Hood said. “And I think then we’ll have a little tricorder, some kind of watch, that can prick your finger, take a drop of blood and make 5,000 measurements … send that electronically to an analytics center, and then that would come to your physician, your health coach and so forth.”
And that paradigm shift shouldn’t be limited to the world’s most economically developed countries. Aitchison said he dreams of seeing “health equity across the world.”
As an example of how technology could bring the developing world closer to his ideal, he referred to a health monitoring program that his center and other organizations are running in South Africa.
“The ideal situation for me would be where we still have that human interaction to get an understanding of how well they’re doing, but not have to sample that as regularly as we do,” Aitchison said. “We’d be able to get remote blood biomarker and other biosamples, with those records delivered through something like a cellphone to a central repository where the data are analyzed. We’re working on that.”
So what are the limits of wellness? Some researchers are focusing on ways to extend longevity indefinitely, but Hood said he’s focusing instead on maintaining the quality of life all the way up to its end.
“What happens when most people move into the hundreds is, they experience rapid, complete systems failures, and people die very, very quickly,” the 79-year-old biologist said. “So, I want to get you to that age, wherever it is, where you can die really quickly after living a productive and happy life right up to that point.
“That, I think, would be success.”