Quantum computing currently resides primarily in academics, where researchers are working to make a working quantum computer viable. When they succeed, quantum computing will have a big impact on society – including healthcare analytics and patient care.
The main advantage is speed. Quantum computing can operate much faster than our current computer systems. How fast? Researchers at the University of California – Santa Barbara, working in partnership with Google, recently announced that they have solved a computation 1.5 billion times faster than it could be solved by current computing systems.
To look at it another way, a computation that would take 10,000 years on a current supercomputer took 200 seconds on a quantum computer. The implications for analysis of huge datasets such as those found in healthcare is clear.
What Is Quantum Computing?
Quantum computing involves the use of any device for computation that makes use of quantum mechanical phenomena such as superposition and entanglement to work with data, according to Science Daily.
You don’t have to understand the details of quantum computing to understand the potential benefits of its use. While still in its infancy, quantum computing research is happening around the world for both civilian and military use. One area of civilian use is healthcare.
The Building of Quantum Computers
While the “race is on” to build the first reliable quantum computer, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), completing one is challenging.
The “tiniest disturbances” can upset the computer’s operations and “an entangled quantum system gets more and more fragile as you try to add qubits to it,” according to NIST. A qubit (short for “quantum bits”) is a basic unit of quantum information.
A group of researchers called NIST-Boulder (for the city in Colorado where they are located) have created a “racetrack trap” for capturing ions that can be used for processing quantum information.
The quantum processor created by NIST-Boulder can run any program that requires only two qubits. Because many more would be needed, one theory is to link two qubit processors together to create the computing power needed.
Quantum Mechanics and Big Data Analysis
As researchers race to create a quantum computer, industries around the world already are determining how it could benefit their operation.
A paper published in the Journal of Big Data and written by university researchers in the United States, Poland and Portugal, noted that the big advantage to healthcare systems would be the ability for systems to work through vast amounts of information created by electronic health records, biomedical research and medical devices connected to the internet of things.
The researchers write that quantum computing can help solve problems in healthcare that might now seem impossible and move big data analytics in healthcare toward a predictive system.
For example, they foresee a future in which data analysis could marry biomolecular and clinical data sets to assess an individual’s health in real time and make accurate predictions of health outcomes that are based on current data. Such analysis could be used to provide better understanding of health outcomes among population subgroups.
They write: “Taken together, big data will facilitate healthcare by introducing prediction of epidemics (in relation to population health), providing early warnings of disease conditions, and helping in the discovery of novel biomarkers and intelligent therapeutic intervention strategies for an improved quality of life.”
While quantum computing isn’t necessary to reach that goal, it can help healthcare systems get there faster and with more accurate data analysis.
Potential Issues in Quantum Computing
While also touting the potential of quantum computing, HealthcareIT News reported that there are issues around quantum computing that will need to be solved (in addition to the issues listed above about simply creating a workable computer).
- Creation of a new set of applications to take advantage of quantum
- Finding funding for the operating costs to cool systems and keep them operational
- Finding funding for the cost of hardware
- Managing any new security and privacy risks raised by the use of quantum computing in healthcare data
Clinical Trials and Medical Practice
Despite the issues, there is justifiable excitement in the healthcare community about the potential of quantum computing. Researchers with St. Louis University wrote in a paper that society “may be at the advent of a revolution in computer applications in clinical care and medical research” because of quantum computing.
They wrote that quantum computing is to current computing what current computing is to Charles Babbage’s 1833 “difference engine,” an invention generally considered to be the first primitive computer.
There is a great deal of complexity involved in using data analytics and machine learning to provide clinicians information in real-time to support making the best patient treatment decisions. It depends on the ever-growing database of medical record information that is constantly updating, as well as links to information from other sources such as wearable medical devices.
Quantum computing can quickly analyze this data while considering patient characteristics that can impact outcomes such as race, age, gender, comorbidities, co-medications and genetic make-up. All this supports clinicians in making the best possible treatment decision in real-time.
Quantum computing can also help make extremely precise medical images, with the ability to visualize individual molecules.
While still years away, quantum computing in healthcare promises to change the way healthcare systems approach patient care. It’s a future that means better care for patients, and an increased importance of analytics in the healthcare industry.