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Durkheim Project leverages big data to prevent veteran suicides

Thor Olavsrud | Aug. 29, 2013
In partnership with social media networks and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, a nonprofit research project is seeking to show that predictive analytics can identify U.S. veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who are suicidal and need help.

"We are proud to be partnering with the Department of Veterans Affairs research on the Durkheim Project, so we can bring a better understanding to this important issue and equip those that use our service with even better tools to keep them safe," Kaplan says. "Through a concerted and coordinated effort on the part of private industry, government and concerned family and friends, we believe we can make a real difference in preventing suicide and saving lives."

The database will also incorporate internal and external risk factors-including concussions, post-traumatic stress, deployments served, family stresses and other variables. For instance, Poulin says there is a high correlation between use of the drug Demerol and suicidality among veterans, which he suggests could be a downstream factor of dealing with chronic pain.

For now, the Durkheim Project will not include an intervention component, though Poulin hopes it will come once the project satisfies clinicians that it can be used as an effective predictive tool.

Data Privacy a Concern
Poulin acknowledges that people will have privacy concerns about the project's work. But he notes that the program is entirely opt-in (and out). The data will be stored at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth's onsite database. Additionally, sharing personal identifiable information with external/third parties is strictly forbidden by the study's medical protocol, which is safeguarded by HIPAA standards of medical privacy.

"We have created a secure data-storage environment behind the medical school's IT firewall to ensure participant privacy-both during this study phase and for any future interventions that may be indicated by the insights generated here," says Paul Thompson, study co-investigator and an instructor at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth.

"Suicide prediction and intervention is really tough, mostly for social reasons, not technical reasons," Poulin says. "We need to get past that stigma. We need to be a combination of caring and tough-caring enough to do it and tough enough to take the criticism you're going to get."

"It's much more privacy invading than your financial statement," he acknowledges of the project's data collection. "Suicide is a very private choice that you can't stop without being able to peel back the layers of the onion on a person's psyche.

 

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