IBM creates new health unit, partners with Apple, Johnson & Johnson, Medtronic

IBM announced the creation of a new unit dubbed Watson Health, as well as partnerships with Apple, Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic, as part of the company's continued push into personal healthcare. "We looked around for areas that were high growth where if we entered we could make a substantial difference and capture substantial share," remarked John Kelly, senior vice president at IBM research and solutions. "None of us are satisfied with the outcomes in the health-care industry," Kelly said, adding "it's a huge bet for IBM."

According to IBM, the new division will include a cloud-computing platform, dubbed Watson Health Cloud, designed to aggregate health information from a large number of devices and providers and offer insights to health companies. The company indicated that Watson Health's headquarters will be in the Boston area, with an expanded presence in New York City, with at least 2000 consultants, medical practitioners, clinicians, developers and researchers.

IBM also announced the acquisition of two health technology firms, Explorys and Phytel, for undisclosed amounts. IBM said that while Explorys' secure cloud-computing platform is used to identify patterns in diseases, treatments and outcomes, Phytel develops cloud-based services that help to ensure care is effective in order to meet new healthcare quality requirements and reimbursement models.

Under its partnership with Apple, IBM's Health Cloud and Watson cognitive computing capabilities will support health data entered in iOS apps using Apple's ResearchKit and HealthKit. The health- and fitness-monitoring system HealthKit, which synchronises data from various health and fitness apps to work as a central dashboard for users, will start running on the Watson Health Cloud in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, the ResearchKit, which was launched last month to allow medical researchers to recruit consenting users into trials, will also move to IBM’s cloud.

Kelly, who described Apple’s HealthKit and ResearchKit platforms as "really unique," noted that there is currently "no systematic way of pulling the data together and sending it" to physicians or clinical researchers. "We are...providing a huge cloud and a secure database as a backstop," Kelly added. Kelly noted that this "will enable doctors and researchers to draw on real-time insights from consumer health and behavioural data at a scale never before possible." IBM will also build a suite of wellness apps using HealthKit, which will be designed for companies to work with their employees to better manage their health needs.

"The average patient will collect a terabyte of medical data in their lifetime. Our analytics will be able to find the dots, the clues that are eluding us, and find new breakthroughs," commented Michael Rhodin, senior vice president at IBM Watson. Rhodin said he expected consumers to opt in to having their data used in clinical research trials as they had a vested interest in contributing to medical advances. "The generation who buy Apple Watches are interested in data philanthropy," Rhodin suggested, adding "many of them have been touched by relatives or parents struck down by disease. Why wouldn’t they help researchers figure out what’s going on?"

Meanwhile, IBM and Johnson & Johnson plan to create mobile-based, coaching systems focused on preoperative and postoperative patient care, including joint replacement and spinal surgery. The systems will be accessed through the Watson Health Cloud and use IBM Watson's cognitive capabilities. "There’s an acute need in the hospital system to actually find ways to track outcomes as it relates to surgical intervention," noted Sandra Peterson, Johnson & Johnson's worldwide chairman. Peterson added "providing patient-specific interaction and engagement, including knowing their patient record and their patient history, you get better outcomes at the back end, you get quicker recovery." The new IBM-enabled services are expected to be introduced next year. Johnson & Johnson also plans to launch new health apps targeting chronic conditions.

In addition, IBM and Medtronic plan to explore ways to develop diabetes care management solutions, leveraging the latter's devices, including insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors, and the Watson Health Cloud platform. The companies are looking to improve Medtronic's closed loop algorithms, which intend to mimic the function of a healthy pancreas. Kelly said this "could change the face of diabetes management," adding that the companies "can marry the power of analytics, cognitive computing and patient engagement with...diabetes management devices to truly change how people with diabetes live."

IBM noted that the relationships with Apple, Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic are non-exclusive, with the companies sharing revenue with IBM on any apps they sell. IBM added that it expects more companies to leverage the Watson Health Cloud platform. Kelly remarked that "the healthcare system is highly fragmented with very little sharing of information, and outcomes are not acceptable and the cost is completely unacceptable." He added "as we see healthcare becoming more information-based, we see a role for IBM to step in."

For more information on how healthcare will be transformed by new types of data collection, see The Rise of Wearable Healthcare Technology: Opportunities and Challenges for Pharma.

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