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Big Data and mental health: three things we learnt from #MHDataSci

Everyone’s talking about ‘Big Data’ these days. About bringing together information from as many sources as possible, to illuminate our thinking on different issues. 

This is especially important in healthcare, where data is being used globally to transform our understanding, help us develop new treatments and take action on prevention.

But when it comes to mental health, an area with huge need and significant room for improvement, we’re lagging behind.

Bringing together patient data could help us better understand what treatments work for which patients.

In the UK, there are a number of great projects underway but at the moment they aren’t linking up in the way you have with areas like cancer. 

With that in mind, we hosted a meeting last week on data science in mental health, alongside The Farr Institute and the South London and Maudsley NIHR Biomedical Research Centre.

Leading experts in the field turned up for a fascinating discussion that showed us the huge potential this area has, as well as the obstacles we face.

Here are 3 things we learnt from #MHDataSci:

  • Patients and the general public have to be involved

We’re embarking into completely new areas that the public know very little about. Best results will come from honest, authentic and transparent discussion with the general public. There are going to be huge benefits from careful movement in this area of research, and the numbers will speak for themselves, with more people participating in research at all levels of the healthcare landscape. Proper and sensitive communication that builds trust will keep research opportunities on track.  

  • It must be collaborative – this isn’t a single disciplinary objective

Funding and activity is already taking place in this area – and that means a lot of great work is already underway. But more needs to be done to bring it together if we are going to have the impact we need. And that means from across different sciences, different Government departments, as well as the range of organisations and people providing mental health care.

The more disciplines involved the stronger we are too, and the greater the diversity of data available. All of which can provide us with richer information. It is only through this approach that we can get a 360 perspective on what’s actually happening.

  • The potential is bigger than we ever thought

If we succeed in combining better data, mental health research, treatments and care could be revolutionised. Firstly, it would change the way clinical priorities are set, with greater data identifying much faster what our focus should be. 

Secondly, it would identify much wider societal and medical trends over time that would improve diagnosis, classification and understanding. Specifically, the aggregation of patient data could help us better understand what treatments work for which patients.

Finally, the data we can capture has the potential to be richer, broader and closer to the clinical reality than we currently get through randomised controlled trials.

The #MHDataSci event was a great step forward. And everyone there was excited by the prospects and potential of what was discussed. The crucial step now is to move forward together – and begin to put some of the recommendations from the day into practice. MQ is hoping to be a leading light in this area, contributing to some of the great work that has already been done.

Last updated: 2 June 2016

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