Making sense: How scientific data can be quantified to help patients

human body medical future

BY AMBER SMITH

Doctors wonder, “If I do ‘x’ procedure, is my patient likely to benefit?” and “Is the ‘y’ medication I prescribed having any effect?”

To answer these questions, doctors may turn to quantitative imaging, the extraction of numerical or statistical features – biomarkers — from medical images such as ultrasound, positron emission tomography, magnetic resonance imaging and others.

Ernest Scalzetti, MD

Ernest Scalzetti, MD

Upstate radiologist Ernest Scalzetti, MD, is contributing to the effort to quantify such information to help guide medical care.

To recognize the potential of quantitative imaging, you first have to understand that a biomarker is something that can be objectively measured to detect the presence of some phenomenon. Fetal measurements are used to determine the health of a developing baby, for example, and the volume of blood leaving the heart is useful in assessing congestive heart failure.

Both of these examples rely on various types of medical imaging, a field whose progress parallels with advances in the understanding of the molecular underpinnings of diseases “and the rise of a more statistical and evidence-based approach to diagnosis and treatment,” Scalzetti explains with colleagues in a paper in the journal Academic Radiology.

For some aspects of cancer care, anecdotal information has been collected from multiple patients over time and standardized into a format that allows doctors to “stage” particular cancers. This is how doctors are able to accurately tell newly diagnosed patients about the prognosis of their disease and what treatments have the best outcomes.

Scalzetti says many other pieces of information can potentially be quantified into other tools to help doctors help their patients, to help assess procedures and medications.

Even with new ways to harness scientific data, he does not expect the doctor to be replaced by an algorithm. “It’s the physician’s job to integrate all of this scientific information, to arrive at what is best for the patient,” he says. “The goal is to give the individual the best chance at living his or her life.”

Layout 1This article appears in the summer 2016 issue of Cancer Care magazine.

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