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MidContinental Region News January 24th, 2019
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Reflections on Big Data in Healthcare: Exploring Emerging Roles

Posted in: #Health Sciences List, Data Science

Written by: Niala Dwarika-Bhagat, The Medical Sciences Library, The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago

Introduction: What is Big Data?

Technopedia defines Big Data as a process “that is used when traditional data mining and handling techniques cannot uncover the insights and meaning of the underlying dataData that is unstructured or time sensitive or simply very large cannot be processed by relational database engines.” (Technopedia., 2018)

Over time, the different iterations of Big Data processing and application have been used to reflect, interpret and influence developmental change. The sanctity of this tacit operation has remained largely undisturbed, until the advent of social media. Layers of issues involving social media apps, now suggest that Big Data, in addition to its merits, can be manipulated to alter perception and reality. Notwithstanding the notoriety of current headlines, what is clear is that the Big Data is now a commonplace topic of conversation.

Do you think health sciences librarians should get involved with Big Data in healthcare? 

The health sciences librarian working with Big Data in the academic environment is potentially in a “safer” place away from the glare of mainstream media. And although the librarian has been traditionally and typically constrained by a much larger mandate to provide services and resources for curriculum support, this is set to change with data science featured on university curricula, as well as libraries’ strategic plans. So indeed, health librarians should and would inevitably get involved with big research data in healthcare even if it is to provide basic but essential data services support emanating from medical education.

Where should librarians get involved?

There is great potential for academic health librarians to do data services support. The roles that could be potentially played are:

  • As controlled vocabulary experts (cataloguers and indexers)
  • As systems experts, navigating through ILS and health research data sets
  • As marketers -doing outreach to garner support for data projects
  • As advisors e.g. creating data management plans
  • As trainers, embedded in data science courses
  • As search-experts aiding the discovery of health research data
  • As support for ongoing research projects
  • As programmers writing analyses using code
  • As advocates for the privacy of medical research data
  • As outreach experts, including creating research guides
  • As expert searchers, locating datasets for faculty research

How should librarians get involved?

The health sciences librarian need not become a data scientist but rather work in teams for maximum output and impact. Academic research data will form the crux of this work, operationalizing all of the above. As librarians accept a mandate to work with big research data, with their skills and training they can be the ultimate crucible for data discovery. I envisage their greater role would be as providers of information and trainers using their existing skills and expertise. This would involve activities such as engaging with faculty to harness research data, encourage researchers to deposit their research data into the library repository, collection development, data literacy instruction, creating online resource guides, assist with data management plans, and provide guidance on data tools. With advance training, they can even locate data sets that researchers require. Furthermore librarians with coding/programming skills, can definitely add value to data services support for research in healthcare data. As far as potential roles are concerned, there are a great many and, with time, there would be sophisticated and evolved workflows for the health science librarian.


What is Big Data? – Definition from Techopedia. (n.d.). Retrieved March 28, 2018, from https://www.techopedia.com/definition/27745/big-data



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National Network of Libraries of Medicine/MidContinental Region (NN/LM-MCR)
University of Utah
Spencer S. Eccles Health Sciences Library
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Salt Lake City, UT 84112-5890
Phone: 801-587-3650
This project has been funded in whole or in part with Federal funds from the Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, under cooperative agreement number UG4LM012344 with the University of Utah Spencer S. Eccles Health Sciences Library.

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