“Can we empower patients to become their own data guardians?”

Professor Christof von Kalle, head of the Department of Translational Oncology at the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ) in Heidelberg, is passionate about how Big Data can benefit the patient – and every member of the healthcare ecosystem. But it will only fulfill its promise, he says, if we listen to patients as doctors do – and learn a bit about what they want from their healthcare system. This is an issue, he tells HealthTech Wire, that his session at the forthcoming HIMSS Impact 17 (November 20-21, Potsdam, Germany) will tackle … and not before time, he says.

What are your views on the potential of Big Data within the healthcare arena?

This really depends on your definition of Big Data. Some see it as very large data that have no algorithm to resolve them. If you consider it from a broader perspective, however – which is how I like to see it – as something that tries to work with all the available information that we have of patients – i.e. as ‘smart data’ – then things become very interesting!

There is, for example, great potential for machine learning to find patterns in data where we have no hypotheses at all. We simply let the machine discover new patterns for us! This is obviously very exciting.

What are you particularly looking forward to about the HIMSS Impact event?

The idea of bringing together the state-of-the-art thinking around Big Data and trying to push the boundaries a little is very exciting. I am also looking forward to looking at Big Data from the patient’s perspective, which is something that we have never really done before.

The session you’re leading on at the event is going to do just that, isn’t it? Can you tell us a bit more about it?

Yes, that’s right. With the session “The Patient’s Perspective: What benefits are in it for them?” we are doing what we can to present Big Data from the patient’s perspective.

I wanted to get away from the usual format – having a computer specialist, a few physicians and a data geek, say – who talk through the issue among themselves – and instead invite the perspective of those people who are either directly affected or represent those who are directly affected by Big Data in healthcare – the patients, patient advocates and so on.

Of course, we have a much more developed and liberal use of data and smart devices in other industries than we have in the healthcare system. If we let the patients talk to us they will tell us what they want – and expect – to have, and of course, what they don’t want to have. And I think that’s going to be a very interesting and healthy discussion.

There could also be a substantial degree of innovation coming from the patient population if we begin to harness it. If we start to understand what the patient as a customer of the healthcare system wants, then things will start to dramatically improve. And not just from the perspective of the patient, but also from the position of other healthcare stakeholders.

Can you tell us a little bit about the work you are doing with Big Data as head of the Department of Translational Oncology at the DKFZ/NCT – and what relevance it has to the HIMSS Impact event?

We are active in three layers of data. One is the really high throughput diagnostic level – which generates really large sets of data. An example of this is the sequencing of tumor patients that generates terabyte amounts of data for every individual patient.

And the next one, which we’re doing in collaboration with enterprise application software firm SAP – and I’m very interested in this – is looking at all the data that we already have – much of which is sitting in so many different patient files and separate IT systems – and finding ways to start to connect all those silos.

And then the third dimension is around patient-related data. Can we make the patients their own ‘data guardians’, if you wish? Can we provide the patients with the data space that will allow them to connect to their health data on their own and do all the things that they can do – and expect to be able to do – in so many other areas of their lives? I find this third area particularly exciting.

How will you know that this HIMSS IMPACT event has been a success, from a personal perspective, at least?

Success for me would be if I came back with at least one new angle or perspective on what we are currently trying to do at DKFZ. And I am pretty sure that that is going to happen – the field is so interesting and vivacious!

The other thing, as I’ve hinted at already, is that it’s all very well us getting really excited about how we can gather large amounts of data from patients – through wearable devices and other new tech developments. But from my point of view, we’re not really making a success of this until we find ways to understand and make use of the data that we already have. So that’s a subject that I’m going to do my best to ensure we take up at HIMSS Impact 17!