When speaking about ‘digital health’, the term is often attributed to multiple elements: data, information and knowledge. Few people, however, actually stop to think how these terms are related – and in fact, each is a prerequisite for the other.
Data is collected – we seem to be good at that and indeed are getting exponentially better at it. We are doing this by connecting billions of devices to the internet, each of which contribute billions of bytes of data.
A recent report, Data Age 2025, expounds that “Mankind is on a quest to digitise the world”. It predicts that our global datasphere will grow from around 33 zettabytes now (the mega, giga, tera, peta, exa, zetta data equivalent to do, re, me, fa, so, la) to 175 zettabytes by 2025 – in fact, each of us will be having a data interaction every 18 seconds by then. We will be tracked, monitored, listened to and watched constantly, because apparently the “data driven world will always be learning”.
Learning, however, requires conversion – data needs to be converted to information and this happens typically through processing. My take on the current state of the health sector is that we have created a digital pyramid, but an odd-looking one! We have an enormously oversized base consisting of probably several petas and maybe exas (?) of data. The next layer up is growing quickly as we look to process our data more and more to derive information. Unfortunately, though, we have a rather small top – knowledge.
We need our digital health environment to look more like a tree rather than a pyramid – and indeed modern investment in digital health is aimed at achieving this. It will mean going the next step and converting information into knowledge by applying cognitive or analytical capability to make it useful, but we need to be doing this exponentially faster than we are doing now. As the datasphere grows (the roots of the tree), we need to convert this to information (suck it up through our tree trunk) and generate knowledge at a far greater rate than we are doing currently – the tree’s crown is what will make a difference for clinicians, consumers, and in fact everyone in the health system.
Of course, knowledge by itself provides little benefit unless you do something with it. Herein lies a significant issue – and it is one I have been discussing with people as I travel to meet more of our participants. If we can turn our digital pyramid into a tree, we need to put equivalent effort and thought into just what we will do with that knowledge, and how. The age old adage of ‘knowledge is power’ is only true if you do something with it.
Collecting a rich variety and volume of data on an individual and using the resulting information to know with some real probability that they will develop a particular condition or illness is one thing (and often thought about as being a good thing), but what do we do with this information, how and who does it? Equally important, what obligation do we have to inform the patient – and who might be at fault if we don’t or if we get it wrong? And who is ‘we’ anyway – the machine, the bot or a person?
These are all interesting questions and ones that will need to be answered as we build the technological infrastructure that will underpin our digital tree of knowledge.
I look forward to providing some insights on these and other issues through our flagship and enabling foundation programs that we will undertake with our participants in the months and years ahead.
Dr Victor Pantano
CEO, Digital Health CRC
Data Age 2025: the Digitization of the World