IBM’s Watson to treat healthcare’s data explosion with global analytics platform

14 Apr 2015

IBM Watson project manager Leanne LeBlanc views analytics of healthcare data at Watson headquarters in New York City. Photo by Jon Simon via Feature Photo Service for IBM

With research indicating that medical data will double every 73 days by 2020, IBM is committing its supercomputer, Watson, to the task of analysing this data explosion.

According to IBM, a person will generate an overwhelming 1m gigabytes of health-related data in a lifetime – which, in hard copy terms, equates to more than 300m books.

This data explosion is fuelled by the growing use of fitness trackers, connected medical devices, sensors and implants, which all track and capture real-time information.

It’s hard to connect all of that data with existing, fragmented data sets in the healthcare system that are not so easily shared, such as medical records, clinical research and individual genomes.

“We need better ways to tap into and analyse all of this information in real-time to benefit patients and to improve wellness globally,” said John E Kelly III, IBM’s senior vice-president of solutions portfolio and research.

“Only IBM has the advanced cognitive capabilities of Watson and can pull together the vast ecosystem of partners, practitioners and researchers needed to drive change, as well as to provide the open, secure and scalable platform needed to make it all possible.”

Introducing IBM Watson Health Cloud

And so we have the foundation laid for IBM Watson Health Cloud, a global platform built to help healthcare providers make timely, evidence-based decisions about health-related issues.

Watson Health Cloud is intended to provide a secure and open platform for physicians, researchers, insurers and healthcare companies to access individual insights and capture a more complete picture of the factors that can affect people’s health.

For those individuals from whom this data is accrued, the system promises anonymity by stripping their identities away from the information.

Teaming up with Apple, Johnson & Johnson, Medtronic and more

IBM has established a dedicated business unit, IBM Watson Health, which will be headquartered in Boston, though Watson’s presence in New York City will also be expanded.

In all, IBM will dedicate at least 2,000 consultants, medical practitioners, clinicians, developers and researchers to design, develop and accelerate the adoption of Watson Health capabilities.

This is not a solo show, though, and IBM has already established partnerships with Apple, Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic to optimise consumer and medical devices for data collection, analysis and feedback, and more companies are expected to follow.

Watson Health datagram

For Apple, Watson Health Cloud will provide a secure cloud platforn and analtyics for HealthKit and ResearchKit, supporting health data collected from iOS apps. For Johnson & Johnson, Watson will help create intelligent coaching systems for surgeons, as well as lending its cognitive capabilities to health apps the company plans to develop for chronic conditions.

Medtronic will collaborate with IBM to deliver highly-personalised care management solutions for people with diabetes, utilising patient data from its various devices, such as insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors.

Explorys and Phytel add more to the offering

IBM has also acquired two companies – Explorys and Phytel – adding even more advanced healthcare and analytics clout to its arsenal.

Explorys, a spin-off from the Cleveland Clinic, was recently recognised by market intelligence firm IDC as a global leader in healthcare clinical and financial analysis. Its secure cloud platform is used by a number of major healthcare systems, integrating data from 50m patients, 360 hospitals and more than 317,000 providers.

IBM identified Dallas-based Phytel as a leader in health management for its cloud-based services, which help healthcare teams coordinate care effectively.

The companies did not disclose the terms of either deal.

Watson Health datagram

Potential to transform healthcare

This is not, by any means, Watson’s first foray into healthcare. The cognitive computing system has been embedded in health services for some time now, helping pharmaceutical companies research new drugs, giving evidence-based advice to doctors, and even teaching them new skills. IBM itself has received more than 1,300 patents in healthcare, life sciences and medical devices.

To bolster Kelly’s point, IBM is ideally positioned to combine the massive-scale cloud technology, high-security capabilities and deep analytics from Watson to help medical professionals make more informed decisions and, if used effectively, better cater to patients’ needs.

With this as its aim, Watson Health Cloud could be truly transformative.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.