How much healthcare data is too much?

There are a lot of devices that will help you acquire health and medical data, as outlined in several recent articles, including “Smart bandages, pills target patient care, sports performance” and “Events highlight healthcare, medical applications.” (Click here and here for more.) And an upcoming article in our October issue will cover more such devices and efforts to derive medical-quality diagnostics data from them.

But could all this data represent too much of a good thing? That's a question New York Times reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal addresses in an article titled “Can a Computer Replace Your Doctor?

She writes, “As a former physician, I shivered a bit when I heard Dr. Vivek Wadhwa say he would rather have an artificial-intelligence doctor than a human one. 'I would trust an A.I. over a doctor any day,' he proclaimed at a recent health innovation conference in San Francisco, noting that artificial intelligence provided 'perfect knowledge.'”

Probably one third of the audience agreed with him, she writes, adding that “…the conference took place in San Francisco, where the power of technology and data to solve problems holds unshakeable sway.”

At a reception titled “Health by the Numbers,” she writes, various health-monitoring and data-generating devices were on display. But, she asks, “When is more data actually useful to promote and ensure better health? And when does technology add true value to healthcare? The results have been mixed.”

She quotes Ian T. Clark, chief executive of Genentech, as saying at the conference, “I don’t doubt the wearable piece is going to be a productive business model for people. I just don’t know whether it’s going to bend the curve in health outcomes.”

She notes that the state of health is not always readily measurable, as healthy people may have low platelets, elevations in liver enzymes, and blood pressure levels that jump around in response to various factors. Conversely, individuals with normal data can be unhealthy.

“In some cases,” Rosenthal writes, “the ability to collect data has outpaced medical understanding. There is no 'normal' testosterone level for an aging male, yet millions of men have been told they suffer from a condition called Low T and are using testosterone gels, even though medical studies have shown the products are dangerous.”

Of course, there are many cases in which the data are invaluable, leading Rosenthal to conclude, “So hurrah for technology. But it’s just a tool. Let’s hope we have the wisdom to ignore it, as we would a GPS device, when it leads us in the wrong direction—or nowhere at all.”

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