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Verena Fulde

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Big data in health care – does that make any sense? Absolutely!

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Is collecting and analyzing big data a good way to support health research? In our video interview, Prof. Christiane Woopen, Executive Director of the University of Cologne's ceres Institute, explains why the answer to this question is, basically, "yes."

Big Data for health

That said, she also notes that challenges often arise in the areas of data privacy, data quality and the quality of algorithms used to identify correlations or posit hypotheses. But nonetheless, Woopen also explains, the benefits of digitization and big data outweigh any drawbacks, and thus says, "in the health-care sector – and especially in that sector – we shouldn't be trying to slow things down; we should be doing everything possible to move them forward. In Germany, by the way, it's really high time for us to be picking up the pace."

In our Special, we present pertinent examples of what data analysis is accomplishing – such as supporting influenza research and helping to save the lives of premature babies. We also explain how the online game "Sea Hero Quest" is supporting dementia research by collecting players' anonymous game data.

While this progress is certainly evident, it is important to note that the public debate about the ethics of algorithms is just beginning. Prof. Woopen asks, "who actually defines what we mean by "health"? Why should step counts be important, but not something such as meditation for mental health, or some other criterion?" 

Here, she is referring to the practice of basing insurance rates on data collected from policyholders' wearables. In a byline article, Axel Wehmeier, Director of Telekom Healthcare Solutions, asks where the limits to use of big data should be, and who should be deciding this.

Do we want to be able to know, for example, whether we and our life partner are genetically compatible for parenthood? Or do we want to be able to know whether we have a high risk of developing a fatal disease?

If we do, and we learn such things, then how do we deal with what we've learned? With whom do we share it? Should we as societies be making full, unconstrained use of the opportunities inherent in digitization, simply because we can, or do we need to draw the line somewhere? Where should we draw the line, and who should draw it?

We invite you to join the discussion!

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