How IBM’s Watson Could Go from Jeopardy Champ to Home Health Hotshot

IBM’s supercomputer known as “Watson” might be best known for winning the game show Jeopardy!—but home health care providers might soon think of the artificial intelligence technology as an important ally in keeping patients out of the hospital.

With the help of such big names as Apple, Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic, IBM is launching Watson Health, the company announced late Monday. The Boston-based dedicated business unit of IBM will aim to take health care analytics to a new level by utilizing Watson to analyze a vast store of data.

At the center of the effort is the Watson Health Cloud. This will be a secure, open platform capable of analyzing massive amounts of data gleaned from electronic medical records, research organizations, wearable devices such as fitness trackers, and other sources. Because Watson possesses cutting-edge capabilities—such as “cognitive computing” abilities that allow it to learn and interact in a natural way with humans—it should be able to work in novel and useful ways with this trove of information.

“IBM and its vast ecosystem of clients, partners and medical researchers can surface new connections between these diverse and previously siloed healthcare data sets, and spur the creation of a new generation of data-driven applications and solutions designed to advance health and wellness,” the company known as “Big Blue” explained in a statement announcing the project.

The open nature of the Watson Health Cloud means that health care providers and other organizations will be free to utilize it to create their own innovative ways of leveraging data to improve care and achieve other goals.

Apple is one of the first to get in the game, as information generated by its HealthKit and ResearchKit software will be made available to the Watson Health Cloud. HealthKit and a related application for Apple iOS devices such as iPhones enable users to gather health-related data from third-party apps in one place; ResearchKit allows users to provide their health data to academic investigators and others in the scientific community.

IBM intends Watson to be the “analytics brains” behind the Apple products, The New York Times reported.

While home health providers conceivably could benefit if HealthKit users can get deeper insights into their health through the IBM collaboration, the projects being launched by Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic have even more obvious relevance.  

Medtronic, a medical equipment company, makes glucose monitors and insulin pumps that generate data about diabetes patients. By leveraging the Watson software, the company thinks it can help patients and health care providers alike—for instance, by creating more personalized care plans and creating alerts to catch problems before they escalate.

Johnson & Johnson’s collaboration with IBM will focus on the creation of “intelligent coaching systems” to guide patients through post-operative care after joint replacements and other surgeries. The company also wants to create mobile solutions to help people better manage chronic conditions.

IBM also has made two acquisitions, of Cleveland-based Explorys and Dallas-based Phytel, to bolster the Watson project.

Explorys is a cloud-computing platform used by 26 integrated health systems to identify certain patterns, such as in treatments and outcomes. More than 317,000 providers are part of the platform, which spun off from the Cleveland Clinic in 2009.

Phytel creates software to improve population health management, including solutions meant to reduce hospital readmissions.

IBM did not disclose how much it paid for the companies.

Watson Health Cloud will be compliant with Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) rules governing privacy, according to IBM. Steps will be taken to keep data anonymous, unless certain conditions are met, the tech giant said.

The Watson Health announcement came at the annual Healthcare Information Management Systems Society (HIMSS) conference, held in Chicago this year.

Several other new technologies related to home care have been unveiled at HIMSS this week, with the ability to analyze the large amount him of data generated by devices and sensors emerging as a common theme.

Written by Tim Mullaney