First published on on Sept. 16, 2014
In response to the question: What health issue deserves more attention from investors than it’s getting?

The U.S. government is the world’s largest investor in healthcare. Consider, therefore, the following thought experiment: What might happen if the mission of the National Security Agency were expanded to include medicine?

As we have come to learn, the NSA has a voracious appetite and capacity to gather information about people. It listens and looks (or could listen and look) to everything you say on the phone, type on a computer, write in a letter, or say at home. By tracking your cell phone it can know where you go, how fast you drive, and potentially how fast you walk. It can know everything you purchase. And by tracking your internet use it can even know what you’re thinking.

Compare this to the academic physician who is trying to understand how environmental factors contribute to the cause and cure of a cancer. To do this, he or she may spend an entire professional career painstakingly designing and conducting a series of studies, each one able to collect only a few dozen data points about only a few hundred or a few thousand of people, each study only marginally better than the previous one.

What if the cancer researcher had access to NSA-quality data? First, he or she would weep with happiness. Second, he or she would be able to conduct experiments with unprecedented speed. Want to know if spinach prevents pancreatic cancer? Instead of waiting 10 years for a prospective study of 20,000 nurses to conclude (of whom 20 may get pancreatic cancer), our researcher would look back 10 years in the NSA data and have the answer in a day, based on 200,000 cases of the cancer. The researcher would need only to define an estimator of spinach intake, based on grocery-store purchases and dining-room conversations.

Next, consider a person who already has cancer. Is the best treatment surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or prayer? The NSA data would be able to tell you the statistical results of each choice, in patients matched for your age, sex, tumor extent, and background medical history.

Or, a simple question: My vitamin D level seems to be low – is there really any benefit to taking a supplement or should I get more sun? The data would tell me what the experience of others has been.

Of course, I have overstated the depth and extent of the NSA’s data, and, to a lesser extent, the epidemiological principles involved. But there is no question that medical researchers could do wonderful things with data elements that the NSA is in a position to capture and categorize, whether from Germans, Americans, or whoever.

Obviously, none of this will come to pass. But, it does illustrate the priorities of national governments. Their mission, according to the Declaration of Independence, is to “effect [the] safety and happiness” of the governed. Whether your safety and happiness is threatened more by cancer or by terrorists would seem easy to answer.

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