In 1966, Dr. Leonard T. Kurland could only have imagined a world in which his employer, Mayo Clinic, would team up with a technology company named Google to mine health care data in hopes of finding new treatments and cures.
But Kurland, the health-data visionary who founded Mayo’s influential Rochester Epidemiology Project (REP) nearly 53 years ago, likely would have applauded the Mayo-Google marriage announced Tuesday and its potential to improve lives not only in Minnesota but globally.
Kurland, who died in 2001, helped make Mayo a world-class center for medical research and care because he recognized the potential to improve diagnoses, treatment and outcomes by mining the medical records of people living in southeastern Minnesota’s Olmsted County, where the main Rochester clinic is located. That population-based research, which has expanded to include 1 million patient records from 27 counties in Minnesota and Wisconsin, has provided Mayo and other providers with valuable answers to medical questions on disease risk, frequency, prevention and treatment.
The Mayo-Google partnership can build on that success by using cloud computing, machine learning and artificial intelligence. It also will enhance the clinic’s efforts under new CEO Gianrico Farrugia to create a technology platform that helps solve complex health problems. As part of the 10-year agreement, Google will store Mayo data and open an office in Rochester — another positive development in the clinic’s Destination Medical Center project.
Skeptics no doubt will question Google’s corporate ethics as well as raise data privacy concerns. Like it or not, large technology companies are increasingly focusing on health care, which Google CEO Sundar Pichai has called “one of the most important fields that technology will help transform” in the years ahead. As for privacy, Mayo says it will continue to control patient data and that related research will not include individual identities.
Much can be accomplished between now and 2030, Mayo’s chief information officer Christopher Ross told an editorial writer.
The hope is that the partnership will produce new clinical insights. The clinic already has 200 projects underway looking at how artificial intelligence can enhance patient care, and Ross said that number could grow to 2,000 in the next decade. And, he added, “More data means more cures.”
Ross also believes scientists from Mayo and Google will team up to find ways to better connect patients and clinicians — and to make health care more “affordable, accessible and understandable.”
By creating a technology platform much like Airbnb or Uber have done in the travel and transportation industries, Mayo and Google want to connect people with health problems to those who may have answers. For example, “That could be a device that could be attached to a smartphone to help manage a disease or monitor a disease,” Ross said.
Health care solutions that lead to earlier diagnoses of disease or those that result in fewer or shorter trips to the hospital can help cut costs, Ross said, and new research also will focus on wellness.
The data repository that Leonard Kurland made possible five decades ago has aided researchers who’ve made important discoveries about Parkinson’s disease, ovarian cancer and Alzheimer’s risk factors.
Kurland’s foresight helped make Minnesota a leader in medical research. The Mayo-Google partnership is likely to strengthen that position and produce significant advances in health care in the years ahead.