Medical files in a long row

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal describes “Baseline” which is a new project being undertaken by Google X, the secretive skunk works for Google technology research programs such as autonomous cars. According to the WSJ article, the ultimate goal of Baseline is to create a chemical and genetic profile of what a “healthy” person looks like.

Initially, the project will start with samples from 175 volunteers. The tests will rely on blood, urine, saliva, tears, and tissue samples, which will have any individual identification (such as name or social security number) removed before being given to the Google researches. The goal is to eventually collect data from thousands of individuals, which will provide an enormous collection of data that can be mined and analyzed to find correlations that might be helpful in identifying and predicting various illnesses. The program will be monitored by professional review boards, and will work with the medical schools at Duke and Stanford Universities.

Eventually, participants may wear Google’s smart contact lens to provide continuous monitoring of certain information, such as glucose levels. Other wearable Health Tech devices could also be used to collect long-term data on everything from heart rate to blood oxygen levels.

According to the WSJ article, this project is now feasible because the cost of collecting these kinds of test has fallen greatly in the past 15 years, and continues to decline. Computational power and data storage have seen similar declines in cost, so what would have been an impossibly expensive task even a decade ago is now within reach. Google researchers intend to make this information to health and medicine researchers, but not provide access to insurance companies.

This is an admirable project that could be a landmark application of Big Data to health research. I do find it interesting that Google expects to deny insurance companies access to this data, but that seems to be a difference without distinction. The inferred concern is that insurance companies might find correlations in the data that would cause them to charge higher rates or deny coverage to individuals based on their chemical and genetic profiles. However, the health and medical researchers who do have access to the data will no doubt publish their findings, which in the end will provide insurance companies with the same conclusions that could be used to rate policy holders. On the whole, however, I see the potential gains from this research have the potential to lead to new treatments and better screening which could save money and help people lead healthier lives.