Hamish Tomlinson and Yan Yu - How Can We Teach Students About How Big Data Is a Huge Opportunity to Improve the Health Care of Patients?

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Apr 22, 2015
by Stuart Milne
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Hamish Tomlinson and Yan Yu - How Can We Teach Students About How Big Data Is a Huge Opportunity to Improve the Health Care of Patients?

Rhodes Scholars share their ambition to reform health care in their own countries and change the way students learn medicine Yan Yu & Hamlish Tomlinson present at Session 548 | The Promise of Data: Will this Bring a Revolution in Health Care?

Hamish Tomlinson and Yan Yu come from different professional backgrounds, but are both passionate about health care reform. As two of the seven Rhodes Scholars who attended Session 548 | The Promise of Data: Will this Bring a Revolution in Health Care?, they spoke to Salzburg Global about their respective work and their vision for the future of health care and medical education.

Tomlinson earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Canterbury in his native New Zealand, and is currently studying for his PhD at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at Oxford, where his research group measure biomedical signals from patients in the intensive care unit.

He said: “What we do when we create predictive analytics with those [biomedical signals] is try to answer questions such as, ‘If we have this continuous stream of information about the human body and illness, can we use that to try and predict whether they will get a certain complication, where they might next go in the hospital or whether they might live or die?’

“We’re collecting so much data at the moment, and with machine learning you can almost teach models to make decisions without implicitly telling them what decisions to do. Netflix will do that – they’ll have a look at all your preferences, what you’ve done in the past, and then use some complex models based on what other people who have watched the same things as you have done to try and predict what you might like, and use that as a basis for advertising.”

Yan Yu, a Canadian medical doctor, is now pursuing a Master’s degree in Public Policy, and already has clear ideas about what health care policy reforms he would like to see in his own country.

“Canada is the only developed nation in the world that has a government-funded health care system but does not have government-funded universal pharma care,” he said.

“Many experts in Canada agree that if we’re able to have the government bulk-buy medications and fund the provision of medications, that will not only improve patient access to necessary medications but also reduce medication costs to the health care system as a whole.”

While Yu harbors an ambition to teach medicine later in his career, he has already had a major impact on the way medical students learn.

In his first year of medical school at the University of Calgary, he was part of a group of students who worked with their faculty and the IT department to develop the Calgary Guide to Understanding Disease, a series of freely accessible flow charts that explain the signs and symptoms of diseases in a step-by-step manner.

The guide has been used in over 100 countries and downloaded more than 200,000 times.

“We’re quite astonished that it’s making such a large impact,” Yu said. “I think that speaks to the need in medical education right now. Students need timesaving tools to help them learn in a quick, accurate and effective way that relies on not just memorization but true understanding of the pathophysiology behind disease.”

During the session the pair collaborated in the working group dedicated to medical education, which Tomlinson says gave him an opportunity to spread the medical innovations discussed at Schloss Leopoldskron back to New Zealand.

He said: “My sister’s a medical student, my parents are doctors, and I can’t help but think: ‘They don’t know about this stuff.’ That is going to be a massive rate-limiting step in the uptake of many of these tools.

“I would like to make sure the tools get used, and part of that is thinking about how we can educate the medical workforce, in terms of doctors, nurses and all other people who are stakeholders in medicine and health care.

“Also the future of the workforce – medical students – how can we teach them about how Big Data is a huge opportunity to improve the health care of patients? So it’s been really interesting to discuss that and come up with some ideas as to how we might best achieve that with some great people who have some experience in education like Yan.”

Yu is convinced the group of seven Rhodes Scholars are well positioned to continue their work upon their return to Oxford.

He said; “I think we’re going to leave here with an enriched understanding of the role of Big Data in health care. Because we’re all coming from different backgrounds we’re going to be able to take our new found knowledge into our respective fields and then re-congregate for further in-depth conversations about these topics in the future. The ideas can only expand from there.”


Hamish Tomlinson and Yan Yu were participants at the session The Promise of Data: Will This Bring a Revolution in Health Care? The session is part of the Salzburg Global series “Health and Health Care Innovation in the 21st Century” and was held in collaboration with the Mayo Clinic, Arizona State University, The Dartmouth Center for Health Care Delivery Science, and in association with the Karolinska Insititutet. More information on the session can be found here: www.salzburgglobalseminar.org/go/548

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