Precision public health

Big data. The internet of things. Gene sequencing. Machine learning.

21st century public health is going to be big.

Public health feeds on data. It surveys populations to track, screen for, prevent and treat disease. But now that a virtually limitless volume and variety of data is collected and, increasingly, analyzed automatically, public health can get a precise view of individuals within a population: their DNA, their physiology, their behavior over an entire lifetime.

We’ll be able to get the right treatment to the right person at the right time.

Precision Public Health heralds the birth of a new era of global health — which has already halved mother-to-child HIV transmission and could see malaria, malnutrition and cancer virtually eradicated. Selected as a 2018 Spotlight finalist, this research collection explores how data from smart devices, as well as ‘omics’ and other technologies, can be applied ethically and effectively to tailor disease prevention, healthcare access and quality of life interventions for all members of society.

This potential for global impact has garnered global interest. The Research Topic’s 18 articles have already surpassed 44,000 views and 5,500 downloads from 35 countries, with features in a massive 45 news outlets including FOX and ABC.

Professor Tarun Weeramanthri, Dr Gareth Baynam and Professor Hugh Dawkins — colleagues at the Health Department of Western Australia —explain why they and fellow public health experts launched this Research Topic, some of its outcomes, and what winning the 2018 Frontiers Spotlight Award would mean for this young and promising field.

Why was this Research Topic created? 

Precision public health, or PPH, combines big data with genomics and other new ‘-omics’ technologies driving precision medicine, for targeted public health at a global scale.

“In other words, getting the right intervention to the right population at the right time.”

Since the Research Topic Editors coined the term in 2013, it has begun to gain traction in research and the media.

“We launched the Frontiers Research Topic to explain, explore, evolve and ‘internationalize’ the concept. This is the first collection of academic articles specifically dedicated to PPH.”

And they believe precision public health has the potential to completely transform global health.

“This is a rapidly evolving field. It builds on ever-increasing possibilities arising from new precise data and related technologies, and will lead to targeted preventive and treatment options — not just for the few, but for the many.”

What type of research is included? 

Precision Public Health covers three broad areas of progress.

The first is genomics, exposomics, and other –omics platforms.

“Genomics maps an organism’s entire genetic code. From this have come related concepts like proteomics (our proteins), phenomics (our phentoype, or characteristics) and most recently exposomics — the totality of environmental exposures from conception onward. These help us to precisely describe and analyze individuals and their environment over the course of their life.”

Another key topic is spatial health: understanding the movement of people and diseases using geographic information systems, sensors and wearables.

“Smart devices and social media can record our movement, interactions and behavior in detail, and can be used for community participation and crowdsourcing.”

The final area is the use of data linkage, predictive analytics and bioinformatics.

“Big data and data science can be applied to tackle big killers like cancer and infectious disease, but we must do so in a way that respects privacy laws and ethics.”

The Topic explores — in reviews, case studies, simulations, tech reports and expert theories — how these new tools can guide and enact targeted public health policy, as well as reduce healthcare inequality.

What are some outcomes of this Research Topic? 

The Research Topic is a milestone for Precision Public Health: cementing not just the term but a hugely promising new way forward.

And already, it delivers specific and important ways to prevent and target disease.

“One study shows how PPH could be applied to the challenge of pre-term birth, which is the single most important cause of death in children up to 5 years of age in developed countries. A comprehensive approach, incorporating a range of new and existing technologies, can reduce pre-term birth rates by up to 8%.

“Another explains ways that new, non-invasive 3-dimensional facial analysis technology can complement genetic analysis, to improve early diagnosis and treatment monitoring of rare diseases today, and translate into applications for more common diseases tomorrow.

Several other studies lay the foundations of PPH practice more generally, with recommendations on the use of large new data sources.

“One series of articles shows the untapped potential of ‘routine’ health administrative data sets, and how that potential can be unlocked using precise data linkage and other methodologies.

“A number of others test the claims of big data enthusiasts and show that data quality, real-time data delivery and precise scientific questioning are at least as important as the ‘size’ of the data.

“And one article argues that explicit data consent processes and precise privacy protection methodologies are fundamental to the ethical underpinnings of Precision Public Health.”

Why should this Research Topic win the 2018 Spotlight Award? 

Weeramanthri, Baynam, and Dawkins have their eyes on the 2018 Frontiers Spotlight Award prize: US $100,000 to fund a conference on the Topic.

They believe their winning conference would help build on the work presented in this Topic, which comes mainly from countries with developed economies — like Australia, USA, UK and Singapore.

“To achieve the truly transformative potential of PPH research, we must foster strong global partnerships between academics, policy makers, practitioners and the public: for data integration and sharing, and for translation and implementation in countries of all levels of resources and health investment.”

“If the Research Topic is selected as the winner, we will build on the extensive organization and networks created through our upcoming PPH Asia Symposium, to organize a larger international meeting in Europe in 2019.

“Ours would be the first global Precision Public Health meeting.

About the Frontiers Spotlight Award

The annual Frontiers Spotlight Award supports emerging and important fields of research published as a Research Topic in Frontiers journals. The winning team of Topic Editors receives US$100,000 to organize an international scientific conference on the theme of their successful Research Topic. Learn more about the Award

About Frontiers Research Topics

Research Topics are peer-reviewed article collections published around specialized themes. They bring together leading researchers from different institutions, locations and fields of interest, who collaborate and contribute articles.

Published on Frontiers’ award-winning platform, Research Topics are fully open and accessible, and become highly visible collections of work, enhancing both the readership and citations of articles. Learn more about Research Topics

How to enter

Every Research Topic that closes within the award period and is completed with at least 10 articles, will be considered for the Spotlight Award. Shape your field and have the chance to organize your own conference – suggest your Research Topic today!

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Research Topic Editors

Tarun Stephen Weeramanthri     Government of Western Australia, Department of Health

Tarun Stephen Weeramanthri
Government of Western Australia, Department of Health

Matthew Bellgard     The University of Queensland, Australia

Matthew Bellgard
The University of Queensland, Australia

Gareth Baynam     Genetic Services of Western Australia, King Edward Memorial Hospital, Department of Health, Government of Western Australia

Gareth Baynam
Genetic Services of Western Australia, King Edward Memorial Hospital, Department of Health, Government of Western Australia

Hugh J.S. Dawkins     Government of Western Australia, Department of Health

Hugh J.S. Dawkins
Government of Western Australia, Department of Health

Ori Gudes     University of New South Wales, Australia  -    James Bernard Semmens     Curtin University, Australia

Ori Gudes
University of New South Wales, Australia


James Bernard Semmens
Curtin University, Australia