Artificial Intelligence

Synthetic data as the prescription for progress in healthcare

Published on September 29, 2023

In the labyrinthine corridors of healthcare, where every patient’s story is unique and deeply personal, an intriguing transformation is underway—one that has the potential to redefine the landscape of medical research, patient care, and data privacy. At the heart of this transformation lies the burgeoning application of synthetic data in healthcare—a technological marvel that promises to unlock unprecedented possibilities while guarding the sanctity of patient privacy.

Healthcare has long been inextricably intertwined with data. Patient records, medical imaging, and research data have fueled advancements that have saved countless lives. However, in a world where data breaches loom ominously and privacy concerns grow, the conventional methods of handling real patient data come under scrutiny. This is where synthetic data emerges as a beacon of hope, a novel paradigm in healthcare data management.

Synthetic data, a carefully crafted, simulated version of real patient information, offers a bridge between the need for data-driven healthcare advancements and the imperative to protect patient privacy. As indicated by our recent survey, 81% of organizations have established data retention policies. Whether requirements are stipulated by the national healthcare legislation in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, or those of various other countries, healthcare enterprises must retain personally identifiable information (PII) for health insurance and related purposes, but concerns often linger about whether this data is deleted after the retention period expires. Synthetic data can undoubtedly address this issue.

Let’s uncover how synthetic data, a transformative solution, can empower healthcare professionals, researchers, and organizations to harness the vast potential of data-driven healthcare, all while ensuring the utmost protection of patient privacy and data security.

Slaying the privacy concerns, bridging the data gap and much more

The realm of healthcare is characterized by sensitive and highly personal data. The healthcare systems handle sensitive patient data, including medical records and genetic information, raising significant privacy concerns due to data breaches and re-identification risks.

While the healthcare industry is inundated with data, researchers often grapple with data scarcity. Access to diverse and comprehensive healthcare datasets can be severely restricted due to regulatory barriers and concerns over patient privacy. This lack of data impedes medical research, inhibiting our ability to develop more effective treatments, understand disease patterns, and improve healthcare outcomes.

Synthetic data is a meticulously generated replica of real patient data that retains the statistical properties of the original information but contains no PII. By utilizing advanced machine learning techniques, synthetic data generation ensures that individual identities are protected while still preserving the valuable insights that real data can provide.

It enables privacy-compliant data sharing while overcoming regulatory hurdles like HIPAA. However, the accuracy of synthetic data must be rigorously validated to ensure it faithfully represents the underlying real-world data.

Synthetic data isn’t just about privacy; it’s also about diversity. Researchers can create synthetic datasets that represent a wide range of patient demographics, conditions, and scenarios, addressing the limited diversity often found in real-world data. For instance, in large clinical trials, it allows collaboration without compromising privacy, accelerating research and enhancing results’ robustness and generalization.

Challenges in aligning synthetic and real-world data

As organizations increasingly turn to synthetic data for a variety of applications, including privacy protection, research, and analysis, the need to ensure that synthetic data aligns with real-world data has become paramount. This alignment is not a simple task; it involves addressing a range of technical, methodological, and ethical considerations.

Despite best efforts, there can be discrepancies between synthetic and real data, which might include:

  • Noise: Synthetic data can be “too clean,” because it lacks the inherent noise and inconsistencies present in real-world patient data.

  • Missing complexity: Synthetic data might not fully capture the intricacies and nuances of real-world data, especially in complex domains like healthcare.

  • Outliers: Outliers and extreme cases in real data might not be accurately represented in synthetic data, impacting certain analyses or applications.

  • Temporal changes: Changes over time in real data, such as evolving healthcare protocols or patient demographics, might not be reflected in synthetic data unless explicitly modeled.

  • Rare events: Extremely rare events or conditions might not be adequately represented in synthetic data, potentially affecting risk assessments.

Addressing these discrepancies requires a combination of careful modeling, validation, and ongoing refinement of synthetic data generation techniques. It’s essential to strike a balance between privacy preservation and data fidelity to ensure that synthetic data remains a valuable tool for research, analysis, and decision-making while minimizing the risks associated with inaccuracies.

The growing compliance challenges of synthetic data

Gartner’s prediction, as cited in a TechMonitor article, states that 60% of AI data will be synthetic by 2024, up from 1% in 2021. This is a significant shift from earlier predictions of a 2030 milestone. Synthetic data holds great promise for safeguarding patient privacy, diversifying datasets, and enhancing clinical research. However, it has also helped launch a burgeoning industry of companies seeking to monetize fabricated data and facilitate cross-border data sharing, often beyond the purview of data protection legislation.

It is concerning that robust and objective methods for determining whether a synthetic dataset truly qualifies as anonymous, in comparison to the original dataset, are not yet in place. This regulatory gap presents potential risks to consumers, as it might enable insurance companies to freely buy and sell synthetic consumer data that, while technically non-identifiable, retains the key properties needed to adjust premiums for specific consumer groups. While technology companies are restricted by data protection legislation when handling customer data to use in targeted advertising, there are no apparent limitations for sharing synthetic representations of this same sensitive data.

Presently, the legal landscape surrounding synthetic data remains uncertain. While interest in the positive applications of synthetic data is growing, it is crucial for consumers and policymakers to be aware of potential drawbacks.

The potential of synthetic data extends far beyond privacy protection–to bridge data gaps, foster collaboration, and promote diversity in healthcare datasets. Researchers can explore a wider spectrum of patient demographics and conditions, accelerating scientific discovery, and improving healthcare outcomes.

However, it’s essential to acknowledge the limitations inherent in synthetic data. Discrepancies between synthetic and real data, such as inaccuracies and the inability to fully capture real-world complexity, must be recognized. Enterprise leaders should prioritize rigorous validation, continuous refinement, and responsible use of synthetic data. Validation ensures that the synthetic datasets faithfully represent the real-world data they seek to emulate, enabling reliable research outcomes. Collaboration among stakeholders, researchers, and regulatory bodies is essential to establish standards and guidelines for synthetic data usage.

Nonetheless, we must also sound a note of caution. Overreliance on synthetic data without thorough validation can lead to misguided decisions and unintended consequences. It is imperative to strike a balance between embracing the potential of synthetic data and safeguarding against its limitations. In the absence of clear legislation surrounding synthetic data, enterprises must exercise prudence and responsibility.

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