The application of big data analytics to healthcare is changing the way scientists conduct disease research, how physicians treat patients, and how the average person manages their health


Digital data is being generated at a phenomenal rate from daily activities like social networking, mobile device use, online commerce, and internet browsing. Big data refers to a large volume of highly diverse data sets from different sources that are both structured (organized) and unstructured (unorganized). Big data for the most part is unstructured, and the term ‘analytics’ is often paired with big data because in-depth analysis is required to make sense of its sheer size and complexity. In order to understand and process such large amounts of data, big data analytics (BDA) techniques have been developed like data mining, which searches for patterns or relationships within data.

When analyzed, however, big data can be a source of knowledge discovery and data-driven decision-making. One of the best examples of the power of BDA is the search engine Google, which uses BDA to sift through perabytes (1015 bytes) of data in only milliseconds to provide the user with results to their search query. In turn, Google uses the data it collects from users to improve its services and security, and to show relevant webpage ads.

Health-related big data can include information like digitized images, physician notes, electronic health records, genomic, or whole-organism gene sequencing data, medical publications, streamed data from sensor-based smart devices, or web-based data. Data mining and predictive analytics, which uses patterns to predict future events, have so far had a positive impact on advancing healthcare. For example, these BDA techniques have enabled the identification of new potential disease targets and helped predict adverse reactions in some patients. The application of BDA to healthcare also realizes innovation in customized medicine, public health, and clinical operations.

Through a series of articles, the value of big data and BDA to selected areas of healthcare will be examined, including research and development, clinical care, and public health. BDA barriers that currently impede the progression of BDA will also be discussed.





Murdoch, TB and Detsky, AS. The inevitable application of big data to healthcare. Journal of the American Medical Association, 309(13): 1351-1352, 2013.


Big Data Analytics in Health White Paper by Canada Health Infoway:


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Written by Fiona Wong, PhD


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