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Concise Definitive Review

Linking Big Data and Prediction Strategies: Tools, Pitfalls, and Lessons Learned

Yang, Shiming PhD1,2; Stansbury, Lynn G. MD, MPH2; Rock, Peter MD, MBA1,2; Scalea, Thomas MD2,3; Hu, Peter F. PhD1,2,3

Author Information
doi: 10.1097/CCM.0000000000003739


Modern ICUs generate patient care data with sufficient volume, speed, and diversity to overwhelm non–electronic management and analysis systems. In response, “big data” research is evolving so rapidly that its scope is evolving almost too fast to capture and assess. PubMed shows geometrically accelerating increases in big data articles in the last 10 years. Google Scholar evolves even as one searches it. This phenomenon is perhaps best summed up by Sanchez-Pinto et al (1): Like most emerging technologies, the products of data science research in critical care will undoubtedly go through a series of hype and disillusionment cycles before becoming accepted, proven assets in the study and care of critically ill patients.”

Many excellent recent reviews provide useful perspectives for clinicians trying to sort through this deluge (1–7). Our aim in this review is to add our experience and thinking about the epidemiologic and statistical aspects of big data research as a window through which clinicians can make critical judgments about and best use of this novel evidence stream.

We started with a broad look at peer-reviewed scientific and clinical literature accessible via free-access search engines. Our objective was to identify areas of thought and concern, not to identify work that would support meta-analysis (89). This search was augmented by exploration of selected bibliographies from these references. To the roughly 300 articles thus identified as of interest, we brought our mutual and personal histories of practice and research in advanced analytics and computer science (S.Y.), primary care and trauma epidemiology (L.G.S.), anesthesia and critical care (P.R.), trauma surgery and critical care (T.S.), and critical care electronics systems engineering and computer science (P.F.H.) (see also Supplemental Fig. 1 [Supplemental Digital Content 1,] and Supplemental References [Supplemental Digital Content 2,] for search terms, review criteria, and primary review bibliography).

The “big” of big data is some combination of acquisition speed, source diversity, and/or large input volume that must be stored, collated, and processed (10). It is therefore inseparable from electronic data gathering, record keeping, and advanced computational support. Most of this activity therefore takes place beyond the direct control of clinicians and, increasingly, in algorithms and/or other proprietary systems opaque to their users. However, our premise in this review is that the basic tenants and vulnerabilities of these systems are knowable and can be used by bedside clinicians to support an informed skepticism when assessing published results and recommendations or themselves assembling interdisciplinary clinical or research teams.

The main healthcare science benefit of big data research is the prospect of “precision medicine…the right treatment for the right patient at the right time” (11). The second is the possibility of unbiased epidemiology, that is, assessment of patterns of illness and efficacy of intervention in cohorts so large that they truly represent populations (12). The unprecedented size of big-data data pools has important potential to support clinical outcomes prediction models (13). However, understanding the challenges posed by these hitherto unimaginably large inputs is essential to making informed judgments about the quality of information being presented (14).


All aggregated clinical data—even the solo case report—have two faces, two data pools whose interactions must be assessed in systematic ways if we are to derive valid generalizable or decision support information from them (15). These pools are the number of individual patients and the array of particular patient variables or features available. As detailed below and in Table 1, for the purposes of this review, we use the large-case abbreviations N or P for relatively large number of individual patients (N) or particular patient variables (P) in a given data pool and the small-case abbreviations n or p for relatively small examples of those respective data pools. For example, in a solo case report, the number of patients is 1, and the particular patient variables being described are usually relatively few. We would describe this as an np data pool. But a case report on an individual with a genomic variant may describe particular variable features numbering in the millions. This would be an nP data pool, and the most recent reporting on -omics data follows this nP pattern. As yet, few published studies can be classified as NP, that is, population-based studies that also include, for example, -omics data or continuous electronic monitoring input data. However, as we discuss later, the development of machine learning (ML) tools will facilitate such work.

Table 1 illustrates the interplay of the four elements that create the two faces of big data: a matrix of large and small number of patients (one face) versus large and small number of particular patient variables (the other face). Most extant clinical literature is np, that is, patient cohorts of fewer than a thousand individuals (n) and particular variables numbering at best in the several hundreds (p). Currently, most of what is being reported as big data research sorts into the other two boxes, that is, Np (typically registry or other electronic medical record [EMR] data) or nP (commonly -omics but also some of the newer work analyzing continuous digital or waveform monitoring inputs). The potentials and vulnerabilities of the two (i.e., Np vs nP) are distinctive and will be discussed in greater detail below.

Two Faces of Big Data: Number of People (N, n) and Particular Data Variables (P, p)

Beginnings of Big Data Critical Care Research: Np and ICU Scoring Systems

The unique gift that physicians have always brought to the bedside is prognosis, the ability to tell patients and families what to expect from an illness (16). A primary goal of big data research is still prognosis or, as more usually put, outcomes prediction. (“Prognosis” and “outcomes prediction” actually describe rather different things when applied to ML; we will return to this issue.) The dawn of desktop computing in the 1970s introduced the possibility of comparing outcomes across patient groups of hitherto unimaginable size—N data pools. In turn, this demanded ways to standardize patient load and illness severity across comparison groups. Since then, an array of critical illness scoring systems, using an array of clinical data sources (although not all those with potential for electronic deconstruction and analysis), has been developed, published, and come into routine use (Tables 2 and 3) (17–29).

Common ICU Scoring Systems and Their Cohort Size and Modeling Framework

As originally published, all of these scoring systems were proportional hazards estimates derived from conventional regression analyses of np data from American clinical data pools. Much recent publication on ICU prediction focuses on calibrating these and other scoring systems using increasingly sophisticated automated data-gathering systems to increase population size (N) and improve validity for populations outside the United States (30–38).

The earliest and most familiar of these scores, the Acute Physiology And Chronic Health Evaluation (APACHE), published in 1981, is based on a classic np dataset: 833 adult admissions to two U.S. hospital ICUs (17). APACHE II expanded to 5,815 patients from 13 hospitals but had even fewer patient variables—Np (18). Much of the international work cited above showed the relative insularity—statistically speaking, the poor calibration—of even this amended system. More recent versions of APACHE use newer big data tools to include more than 100,000 patients and many more variables—although still within the Np framework—and can be embedded into EMR systems to facilitate use in clinical care (320).

Even as these scoring systems expand in scope and dimensionality, they still raise key issues about the vulnerabilities of model-driven N data pool research: missing data, bias, and attributable risk. Regression models are exceptionally vulnerable to missing data. In a system built around determining the shape of a line, for every value y, there must be an x, and there are essentially two options when one or the other is missing: drop the entry with the missing datum (list or pairwise deletion) or assume a value (impute) (39–41). List deletion—dropping the patient entry altogether—is the easiest solution, may happen automatically in some analytic systems, and is the most likely to introduce significant and systematic selection biases in the consideration of relatively uncurated EMR-based registry populations of acute care patients (42). Imputation can be done based on various assumptions. The substitution of a calculated mean or modal value has probably the least potential for biasing results, but maximum likelihood or multiple imputation methods have been used and are plausible (384344).

In sum, the newer iterations of older ICU scoring systems are good examples of Np analytics using classic regression modeling and assumptions of statistical normality. They also exemplify the kinds of data mining techniques that are increasingly used to propose novel insights about population patterns of disease while being stretched to what may be the limits of their capabilities (1314). An example of the latter is the concern recently raised by the American Statistical Society regarding the validity of conventional notions of statistical probability in the face of huge numbers (1545–47).

nP Data Pools: -Omics Data and “Precision Medicine”

-Omics data are a commonly cited example of precision medicine and a good example of big data analyses based on nP data pools. Most reports describe relatively few individuals (n) for whom the input features of the particular patient variables being analyzed may number in the millions (P) (248–54). In an innovative effort to expand the scope of P data in critical care, the National Institutes of Health Inflammation and Host Response to Injury—Genomics in Trauma (“Glue Grant”) collaborative explored the dynamic, age-related genomics of the immune response to severe injury, particularly regarding sepsis (55). Representing 22 U.S. trauma centers, roughly 3,000 individual patient records with 1,200 data fields and 5,000 microarrays involving more than 6.9 million input features, the Glue Grant data pools approach the NP ideal and required wide-ranging and innovative solutions to data collation and analysis that are worth exploring as examples of dealing with dimensionality and diversity in big data research (55–64).

NP Data Pools for Big Data Research: Digital and Waveform Data

In contrast to the relatively static and costly nature of -omics data, critical care is rich in dynamic, high-throughput data from patient monitoring and clinicians’ sequential decisions and actions, all now being recorded and stored electronically. The complexity of human systems and their interactions create enormous pools of variables that can provide many features (P) during the stages of data exploration. The potential for predictive continuous electroencephalogram waveform analysis exists (6566) and has been explored for possible incorporation into mobile monitoring devices (67) and in tracking an association with acute liver failure in the neuro-ICU (68). Decreased heart rate variability derived from electrocardiogram waveform analysis has been shown to be a useful ICU metric in critical illness (69), sepsis detection (70), multiple organ dysfunction (71), neuroworsening (7273), and cardiovascular mortality (74). Our own and other centers have investigated waveform analysis from continuous automated electronic arterial blood pressure monitoring and intracranial pressure monitoring to predict short- and longterm outcomes in critical care patients (7576). Whether N, P, or both, big data by definition, involves machines to collect, collate, store, and manipulate those data. ML is the scientific discipline that explores how computers learn from data, but the degree to which that learning capacity can be harnessed to improve critical care outcomes—where the costs of wrong decisions are high—is not yet clear. In the next section, we review basic assumptions that underlie ML and consider how those assumptions affect how ML is being deployed in critical care medicine.


The size and complexity of ML processes mean that they are often summarized in metaphors—visual imagery like “tree-based” or “support vector,” physical actions like “lasso” or “elastic net,” or physiologic processes like “neural networks”—that only minimally convey the reality of the mathematical and technical steps involved (77–79). Among the most common metaphors for summarizing ML methods are “model-driven” versus “data-driven” or “top-down” versus “bottom-up.” These are informal terms for deduction versus induction, that is, moving from a hypothesis to some kind of guaranteed conclusion versus moving from a collection of observations to generalizations that may or may not be true. Top-down analysis starts with a theory and hypothesis, then uses observations (data) to confirm or reject the hypothesis via established statistical methods. Bottom-up discovers patterns from data, forms hypotheses from these patterns, then distills an overarching theory. ML methods mostly do inductive learning from a given data pool, that is, are mostly data driven. However, ML also depends on initial assessment of the structure of the data pool using conventional, hypothesis-driven statistical tools. So even the most advanced current forms of artificial intelligence, the latter stages of which are entirely inductive, start as model driven (80). Beam and Kohane (81) describe ML as:

...existing along a continuum between fully human-guided vs fully machine-guided data analysis. To understand the degree to which a predictive or diagnostic algorithm can said to be an instance of machine learning requires understanding how much of its structure or parameters were pre-determined by humans.

This continuum is often summarized using two other familiar terms: “supervised” and “unsupervised.” In supervised ML, what could be called the more human end of the continuum, knowledge of the outcome is provided to the model. Results provide statistical estimations of likelihood and translate comfortably to prognoses of outcomes like mortality. As analysis progresses, preestablished criteria are used to select those features in ever-shrinking (as less “useful” features are discarded) pools of data most closely associated with the outcomes of interest (82). Basic statistical tools like chi-square analysis, regression modeling, and Bayesian analysis are often used in these stages, and several clinical journals are now publishing series of short reviews of statistical thinking and methodology in recognition that some familiarity with these tools has become a key asset for bedside critical care physicians (83–89).

Newer methods that manage outliers without distorting results and that are good at assessing the relative importance of sequential sets of variables—such as Random Forest (a way of assessing successive informational branching patterns) or Bayesian ensemble (based on Bayes’s analysis of sequentially revised prior estimations of likelihood depending on sequentially incoming information)—have been useful in arrhythmia alarm classification (9091). Early neurocritical care work used conventional regression techniques and then support vector machines (92) and Boosting algorithms (93) to select features of continuous electronic vital signs monitor data (intracranial pressure, heart rate, systolic blood pressure) that predicted specified outcomes after severe traumatic brain injury (9495). Luyt et al (96) used similar techniques to describe analysis of the magnetic resonance imagery of brain tissue molecular water flow to predict outcome in comatose ICU patients during therapeutic hypothermia after cardiac arrest. Lajnef et al (77) describe a Decision Trees approach to sleep staging using continuous electrocardiographic, electroencephalographic, electrooculographic, and electromyographic data. Despite the unfamiliar terminology, all of the above work provided clinically useful information to its patient care teams based on a much more sophisticated and granular examination of available physiologic data than has been hitherto possible.

In contrast, unsupervised ML approaches data pools without outcome data being provided for the model, deriving outcomes probabilities via patterns of association. Veloso et al (91) describe clustering techniques as potential tools to predict ICU readmission. The University of California, San Francisco and the University of California, Berkeley clinical research team has used both hierarchical clustering and correlation network analysis to describe the complex and dynamic metabolic states of critically ill trauma patients (97) and responses to intervention (98). Ghosh et al (99) used hidden Markov models, a Bayesian approach to nonlinear recursive filtering of data (100) to describe changes in sequential patterns of blood pressure and heart rate. These inductive bottom-up analyses provide numerical assessments of association as “outcome predictions” that are important hypothesis generators but are not structured to support clinical decision-making in ways that have been widely validated (1101102).

As we consider attempts to move big data systems to the ICU bedside, both the strengths and the weaknesses of these analytic approaches must be kept in mind.


In general, bedside big data clinical applications involve moving beyond prognosis into decision assist. As an example, “intelligent” telemedicine systems like the Philips eICU (Philips, Amsterdam, The Netherlands) can integrate and interpret remote location EMR and ICU monitoring data via algorithms derived from N databases to provide advanced-care monitoring and prognostic capabilities in support of consultative clinical decision-making (103–106).

As yet, however, systems advances based on big data research have proved more useful in supporting and documenting improvements in critical care processes than improvement in critical care patient care outcomes (107108). Two exceptions are in critical care of the newborn and trauma resuscitation. The Kaiser algorithm for calculating newborn sepsis risk, an open-access multivariable risk model derived from analysis of 200,000 perinatal admissions to a single Kaiser Permanente hospital, 2010–2015, demonstrably reduces perinatal laboratory testing and antibiotic use without adverse effects and is currently in use in children’s hospitals in the United States (109110). In trauma resuscitation, electronic registry databases supported the recognition of an acute coagulopathy of trauma (111112) and the need for rapid hemostatic resuscitation (113–115).

Over the last decade, our research group at Maryland Shock Trauma has harnessed automated electronic vital signs monitoring data collection systems to a variety of critical care prediction tasks, including assessing subtle physiologic effects like those of intracranial pressure variations—missed by conventional recording—on long-term outcome after severe neurotrauma (769495116–121). The analyses at the core of this work employ a range of ML techniques (9495110) as well as evolving computer engineering solutions (122). The close links among critical care bedside data sources, data networking systems, and the computer science team have allowed development and deployment of translational instrumentation now being tested in fixed facility and U.S. Air Force airborne ICUs (123).


Optimizing the critical care potential of big data research will require solutions to two tightly intertwined problems: the nature of the data at the heart of big data research and the nature of clinical decision-making. Put very simply, ML is essentially an extension of existing mathematical concepts and statistical tools to take advantage of the data manipulation capabilities of advanced electronics. However, unlike the N databases assembled to assess epidemiologic patterns in the past—infant diarrhea in the 1960s (124); asbestos exposure and cancer in the 1970s (125)—the retrospective databasesthat are the sources for many current N studies are comprised of data originally collected for other uses. Anathema to the traditionally trained epidemiologist, secondary analyses are now accepted as inevitable but still require alert judgment to avoid the worst effects of selection and ascertainment bias (12). As an example, when it was released in 2008, Google Flu Trends was hailed as a rapid-response public health disaster-preparedness breakthrough but itself fell victim to overfitting and concept drift—the ML manifestation of classic selection bias and resulting spurious association. That is, in the particularly severe 2012 flu season, the worried well were as likely to Google-search flu-related questions as those who were truly ill (5126127).

The Multiparameter Intelligent Monitoring in Intensive Care (MIMIC) database has evolved in part in response to this problem of inappropriate secondary data mining. MIMIC began as a vision of precision medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a dynamic pool of individual and collective patient data that could be queried in real time on rounds to provide immediate answers to patient care questions (128–131). Greatly expanded, updated, and deidentified to allow public access, MIMIC II has supported studies in cardiovascular time series dynamics, modeling intracranial pressure for noninvasive estimation, and mortality prediction (132–134). Medical Information Mart for Intensive Care (MIMIC) III, released in 2016, integrates increasingly granular access to high-quality physiologic measurements, including potential for user visualization to increase non-expert access (135) and, in a sub-set of patients, for access to P data pools in the form of continuous electronic monitoring and -omics data. The commitment to open-access peer-reviewed science that MIMIC represents is encouraging but will require an equal commitment to quality control, calibration, and open access on the part of its users (101).

The Google Trends algorithm was quickly amended by its developers, and the game, in a sense, goes on. Which raises the second major problem with the current status of big data research. So far, the ML applications where the algorithms clearly outperform humans are in low-risk settings—games, etc.—where the cost of a wrong decision made on the basis of the information provided is relatively trivial. Similarly-structured medical applications now exist that can perform better than expert humans on image-based pattern recognition diagnosis (136137) but do not do as well when presented with the range of bedside uncertainties that are the routine fare of the senior attending physician (1101138–140). These have as yet (despite enthusiastic predictions [141]) defied ML and other forms of artificial intelligence deconstruction and codification (1).

The challenge—and potential—of big data research is the integration of big data pools and novel methodologies to identify that individual patient likely to have the unexpected—not the expected—response to a particular illness or treatment (6). And to do so soon enough that cost-effective intervention is possible and individual and population outcomes demonstrably improve. The challenge to clinicians is to be able to incorporate statistical thinking into their daily practice as readily as they do visual, tactile, and auditory information and to be willing to exercise the same degree of critical judgment about the evidence provided by big data methods and instrumentation as they do other evidence.

Common Data Types Collected in ICU Used in Current ICU Scoring Systems


We thank Dr. Zaka Ahmad for his efforts in assembling the first round of citations for review. We also thank Drs. John R. Hess and Aaron S. Hess for their patience and support in reviewing drafts of this article in various stages.


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