Big Data: Artificial intelligence, machine learning and the future of health care


When a clinician is treating a patient, they are focused on the individual in front of them. They ask: ‘How are you feeling?’, ‘What brought you in today?’, and ‘How can I help?’. The patient is then given examinations and further tests as required. From here on, they are put on a treatment path deemed to be most effective.

While this method of practice works well and is necessary, there is a host of information being gathered and communicated during these interactions that, until recently, was simply
not fully captured nor utilized.

As the clinician is focused on patients in front of them, there is a larger picture unfolding which can only be seen by taking a step back and looking at everyone’s data at the same time; complex patterns emerge and tell their own stories.

Today with the help of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning these stories are starting to unfold, enabling different perspectives which will ultimately lead to new kinds of care never before conceive

This is the future of health care.

Big data is transforming cancer care in BC

Adjacent to the Blusson building at VGH, in a space generously provided by the Women’s Health Research Institute, sits the Big Data Solutions Lab. While the building is inconspicuous on the outside, what is happening inside is transforming gynaecologic cancer care for all British Columbians.

Three principal investigators with Ovarian Cancer Research Program (OVCARE) and the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at UBC are leading the charge in what will likely become a primary driver in medical advancements for gynaecologic cancer patients. Dr. Aline Talhouk studies digital health and clinical predictive models. Dr. Gillian Hanley’s work harnesses the information that is available in population-based administrative datasets, and Dr. Janice Kwon, a gynaecologic oncologist, models the cost-effectiveness of many different gynaecological cancer interventions.

“Today, we have started tapping into big data and analyzing it to get answers to important questions we never could before, both for prevention and precision medicine,” says Dr. Talhouk. “We are using AI and machine learning to identify patterns from complex health data to develop and deploy predictive tools that optimize decision making for prevention, therapies and management of ovarian and other gynaecological cancers.”

This information is directly improving gynaecological cancer care in BC and around the world. By analyzing data from a multitude of health sites, Dr. Talhouk and her colleagues in the Big Data Solutions Lab are playing a pivotal role in reaching the Gynecologic Cancer Initiative’s goal of reducing the incidence, death and suffering from gynaecological cancers by 50 per cent by 2034.

“This work will not only improve our understanding of disease, but also allow us to personalize our approach to each individual patient to achieve the best possible outcome,” says Dr. Talhouk.

Old problems, new solutions

This technology isn’t just identifying new patterns, Dr. Gillian Hanley is also using it to reexamine long-standing medical mysteries.

“For example, we’ve known for a long time that the oral contraceptive pill reduces the risk of developing ovarian cancer, but we don’t know the biological reasons,” says Dr. Hanley. “What we’re able to do now is go into these databases, identify women who have had exposure to oral contraceptives, have had surgery, and then we can access those tissues to further research the biological reasons why this pill is effective. This doesn’t burden any patient, and by finding these answers we can possibly make more effective treatments.”

By bridging together data points from previously siloed sources such as tissue banks, molecular data sets, hospitals and patient accounts, the researchers at the Big Data Solutions Lab are able to create novel observations that ultimately move forward the understanding of gynaecological cancers.

“What can be achieved by leveraging data may sound like science fiction, but it’s not — this is happening. This is going to be the way of the future,” says Dr. Talhouk. “If I were to do a prediction of the future, data is at the centre of it.”

And this is only the beginning.

Find out how donations make a difference

Data-based research and its impact beyond cancer care

The expanded utilization of big data has the potential to improve patient outcomes across countless areas of our health care system.

Research-based community care

The Withdrawal Management Centre (WMC), which will offer life-saving recoveries and ongoing wellness for clients hopes to bring this approach to community health. Dr. Ronald Joe, Medical Director of Substance Use Services at Vancouver Community, Vancouver Coastal Health, sees an opportunity to use data to help their clients reach recovery.

“Scientific research has really focused on short-term outcomes so far,” says Dr. Joe. “But in medicine, I think the best type of research has to do with long-term outcomes.”

The new WMC will bring research and care together under one roof. Dr. Joe is excited about the integration of research at the WMC and the opportunities it holds for more personalized client care.

Using AI and big data to battle COVID-19

AI and data analytics has and continues to play a key role in our understanding and treatment of COVID-19.

At VGH and UBC Hospital radiologists have led an international study to better predict the presence of COVID-19 based on CT scans. By utilizing AI, they are able to predict the presence, severity and complications of COVID-19.

Dr. Artem Cherkasov of the Vancouver Prostate Centre is also using a powerful AI-augmented technology to screen more than a billion known chemical compounds to help identify a shortlist of likely candidates that could lead to improved treatments.

Philanthropy is what empowers medical breakthroughs

The research and work being done in the Big Data Solutions Lab is only in its infancy. With additional philanthropic support the incredible team will be able to continue their work in answering previously impossible questions in order to create more effective, personalized medicine.

“Donations play a critical role for our work, particularly in the infrastructure,” says Dr. Talhouk. “We need database developers, we need machinery, disc drivers, computer clusters, and places to save all the data we’re collecting. The need here is great, and every donation matters.”


Previous Story
Vital Magazine home
Next Story