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Big data as a factor in life-or-death decisions

July 10, 2014

Life is a mysterious stew of biological processes that somehow, against all odds, carry the vital spirit onward. When you consider all the factors that must converge successfully for a baby to be born into this world, it's tantamount to a miracle. Likewise, it's amazing that most of us are able to survive year in and year out (some of us well over a century) considering all the slings, arrows, accidents and illnesses that might befall us anywhere along the way.

Life expectancies around the world soar when we're able to save babies at birth. But being born is not the only critical milestone in the at-risk life of an infant. The prenatal, neonatal and immediate postnatal periods all have their own risk factors. Those who were born prematurely are especially vulnerable, of course, and that fact typically leads to extended stays in maternity ward incubators under constant supervision. But even those who were born at the 36-week mark and manifest no obvious risk factors at birth are not out of the proverbial woods. For them, it may be smart to maintain some level of vital sign monitoring in the first few weeks or months after being brought home.

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Image courtesy of Openclipart and used with permission

But that at-home vital sign monitoring is not happening anywhere (not unless you count those remote "baby cry" microphone and speaker gadgets that many new parents put next to newborns' cribs). And it's shocking to realize that prenatal or neonatal vital sign data collected at the birthing hospital rarely follows them home (much less ends up in the custody of their family pediatrician).

As this recent article notes, a typical newborn's medical record is usually wiped clean when mom and dad bring them home for the first time. "[F]rom the moment we leave the womb (and before that) we're exuding data with every tiny breath," says author Chris Smith, "but up until quite recently, analysis of that heart rate data was rather facile. Babies would, of course, be connected to heart rate monitors, but they only informed neonatal staff whether the patient was comfortable or in distress. When the babies were sent home, with a presumed clean bill of health, this data was discarded with no further analysis."

The article discusses "Project Artemis," a University of Ontario project in which IBM participates. Under this project, hospital neonatal units around the world are being hooked up to transmit real-time sensor data on newborns' vital metrics into a big data cloud where they're being analyzed for trouble signs. This enables life-saving alerts to be automated triggered and transmitted back to hospital staff when necessary.

The article alludes to but doesn't make the necessary connections on an emerging technology that could conceivably extend "Project Artemis"' outside the neonatal hospital stay. That technology is "quantified self," as enabled by the Internet of Things (IoT).

As the QS movement picks up steam, it will become more feasible to instrument more at-home infants with 24x7 physiological monitoring. As IoT technology comes into widespread adoption and is adapted to the needs of the very youngest users, it may become possible to flag subtle anomalies in heart rate, breathing, brainwave activity, sleep patterns and other metrics that parents and pediatricians have overlooked. If this data is aggregated with the baby's electronic medical records and analyzed in real time, it might signal the need for urgent intervention to save the child's life or prevent some life-altering impairment before it's too late.

You might consider this scenario a virtual incubator. It's increasingly feasible to cradle the baby's entire birth journey (prenatal, delivery, postnatal) in a comforting stream of vital signs, real-time alerts, prescriptive analytics and big data. The same QS-cradled infrastructure could conceivably serve as an early warning system throughout our lives. It could provide critical life support when we're ill, when we're declining, when we're nearing the end of life and even when we're in the pink.

Here's an interesting quote from the cited article, from Rick Smolan, co-author of the book “The Human Face of Big Data”: “One of my friends, who was one of Steve Jobs' doctors, told me ‘years before any of us is in an ambulance on the way to a hospital, our bodies are giving off all kinds of data that something is wrong.’ Until now we haven't been measuring it.”

To save any life at any step of its journey from the womb, it's critically important to gauge how near or far it happens to be from death's door.