Global Health Summit: Big data invaluable in assessing health and health trends of nations, communities

October 6/2014

By Elaine Smith

Big data are large information sets that — when interpreted accurately — can illustrate the success of public health and healthcare delivery. But can they also provide an effective means for understanding both global and local health problems and creating solutions?

At the Global Health Summit, Creating a Pandemic of Health taking place November 3 to 5, researchers from Dalla Lana School of Public Health and across U of T will be exploring the uses for the types of big data that are becoming more readily available.

“One reason the University of Toronto is interested in developing skills with big data further is that Ontario is blessed with good data,” said David Henry, senior advisor to the dean of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and director of the Institute of Public Health Policy, Management and Evaluation. “We are trying to bring all the health data sets together to do different types of research.”

Professor Prabhat Jha of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and Laura Rosella, an assistant professor at the School, are both involved with the Ontario Death Study, reviewing the deaths of 1.9 million Ontarians to determine disease trends and geographical death patterns.

Rosella is exploring how to make such data richer by linking it to other population data sets including information about broader health determinants such as levels of education and income. Such linkages can become a way of examining various forms of inequality.

“Gender equity is a global issue that has one of the biggest impacts on health,” said Rosella, also a scientist at Public Health Ontario and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences. “There are examples worldwide where improving women’s health has had an effect on the family and the community.”

Jha is  renowned for his Million Death Study, a project to determine the causes of mortality in 2.4 million representative households in India, a country where many people die at home without autopsies or death certificates. Henry said that Jha’s approach, with its innovative verbal autopsy technique, can be useful to other developing countries that need basic population health data.

“Globally, the most important information — and an obvious place to start — is how people die,” said Jha, who is also the founding director of St. Michael's Hospital’s Centre for Global Health Research. “The system we’re using in India is a practical solution where there is a big global gap in knowledge.”

The other types of data sets that will be explored during the summit are:

·         Social media data:  These are new healthcare tools. Textual analysis can analyze key words in Twitter feeds or monitor Google queries as a way of tracking an epidemic.

·         Biobank data: Detailed information at the chromosomal level is a tool that can be applied to diseases, such as a virus like Ebola, to determine how it attacks the body.

·         Insurance data:  Such data are valuable in developed countries, as well as those trying to develop a healthcare system. Data can be reviewed to see how the system is being used, what the outcomes of care are and where any inequalities might exist.

“This summit will help us to show that the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and U of T are serious about initiatives to harness data within Ontario and globally,” Henry said.

“Dalla Lana is putting a stake in the ground. We’re committed to aggregating and bringing analytics to bear on these data, and we want to train healthcare professionals to use this information to improve health and health systems around the world.”