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Former FDA official explores big data’s impact on healthcare

Apr. 19, 2018, 9:22 AM


“Big data” can help reverse the alarming decline in life expectancy in the United States — if universities and academic medical centers take the lead, former U.S. Food and Drug Administrator Robert Califf, MD, told a Vanderbilt audience last week.

Robert Califf, MD, spoke about big data and healthcare during his lecture last week. (photo by Steve Green)

“We’re going in the wrong direction in terms of health and we’ve never spent so much money,” Califf said. Academic medical centers “used to be able to say we were the ivory tower. But now we own the health systems … We’ve got to come to grips with this.”

Califf, who currently is Vice Chancellor for Health Data Science at Duke University and director of the Center for Integrated Health Data Science at Duke Health, delivered his challenge during the 14th annual Grant R. Wilkinson Distinguished Lecture in Clinical Pharmacology.

The digital health care revolution provides unprecedented access to a plethora of health data down to the individual level. “The problem is we’re overwhelmed by the data,” Califf noted.

Confused by what their doctors are telling them, many patients search the Internet for answers. Oftentimes they find “snake oil” claims promising simple, certain results.

“False news travels further,” Califf warned. “It lasts longer and it’s more believed than true news.”

Stemming the tide of false medical claims is difficult because Congress is loath to censor the right to free speech. “How do we deal with information?” he asked. “We can’t let tech companies and politicians decide. Universities should help steer policy in the right direction.”

To that end, Vanderbilt University Medical Center participates in the National Patient-Centered Clinical Research Network (PCORnet), which is conducting “pragmatic” clinical trials and comparative effectiveness research to improve treatments and outcomes for a host of diseases.

VUMC also serves as the Data and Research Support Center for the landmark “All of Us” study of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors affecting the health of a million or more Americans that will be launched later this spring. “Vanderbilt is at the cutting edge of this,” Califf said.

“Technology is not the limiting factor,” he concluded. “All the limitations are now cultural, and places like this need to lead the way in changing it. We need some way of taking all of this information and turning it into something that produces something beautiful.”

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