Physician viewpoint: How 'big data' can revolutionize psychiatry

A cardiologist would evaluate a patient's chest pain by listening to their heart and measuring their pulse and blood pressure, but as a psychiatrist, Daniel Barron, MD, PhD, evaluates a patient's symptoms the same way they were evaluated 100 years ago: by asking a patient what's wrong, according to an April 29 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.

Dr. Barron is a psychiatrist and the incoming medical director of the Interventional Pain Psychiatry Program at Boston-based Brigham and Women's Hospital. 

Unlike other fields of medicine that use numeric data, psychiatry has stayed immune to data integration efforts, even though tools that gather quantitative data on a patient's life or behavior already exist.

"In the last decade, an entire industry has been built to predict a person's behavior based on their smartphone use and online activity," Dr. Barron said. "Because our search and social media history is digitized and time stamped, it represents a permanent breadcrumb trail of our thoughts and emotions."

Soon, psychiatrists might be able to use online activity tracking to measure and evaluate a patient's mental state.

"Each visit to a therapist creates a wealth of clinical data that is currently wasted because it's not recorded or analyzed," he said.

Data that smartphones measure has extraordinary potential for psychiatric diagnosis and treatment, and studies have shown that the words people use to express themselves on Facebook and Twitter can predict conditions like postpartum depression and psychosis.

"A person's recent Google search history, it turns out, is a better predictor of suicide than their clinician's most recent notes," Dr. Barron said.

Two models of data-integrated psychiatry have already begun to emerge. In one approach, physicians can offer laboratory tests and sit down with patients to decide which data might be helpful to collect and why. Patients decide whether and how much of their data to share, for how long and with which providers. 

Another approach is a consumer-facing product similar to the genetic testing purchasable from 23andMe. People pay for access to their own data and then decide who to share it with. 

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