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IBM Watson Health: Steady Progress

by Brian Murphy | June 02, 2016


Couple of weeks back IBM held an all day analyst event here in Massachusetts to provide an update on applications and use cases for Watson. The afternoon focused more specifically on providing an update of Watson Health, which is still very much a work-in-progress.

IBM’s theory of the HIT case continues to roll out. This calico of software has always seemed like a dog whistle for pharma – lots of patient data, heavy on services, HIPAA-compliant, and moldable to any molecule’s market purpose. It’s still that. But all this data is also geared to help train that Watson brain for bigger and better things. Yet outside a limited oncology use case in Thailand, there was little else to show for Watson’s purported capabilities in the healthcare sector.

But IBM Watson Health, for the first time since their series of acquisitions did put forward a coherent plan for HIT, with a focus on their acquired assets, Explorys, Merge and Phytel. As IBM only recently closed its acquisition of Truven, IBM reserved commenting on its future plans for Truven – our guess, its IBM’s channel to the payer sector and state Medicaid programs.

The Merge strategy is clearly the most well-developed. Combining Merge’s imaging capabilities with Watson’s cognitive computing (visual pattern recognition), IBM sees an enormous opportunity to improve diagnosis, especially in less developed countries where access to clinical radiologists is limited.

As can be expected, IBM’s population health and care management strategy is consistent with virtually every other major HIT vendor. A combined Explorys and Phytel solution is the lead go-to-market solution. IBM only briefly referenced Curam, a care management solution it acquired in 2011. No mention was made of Initiate, an eMPI solution widely used in the healthcare sector, acquired by IBM in 2010.

The company that invented the use of database technology to enhance programmer productivity is inching closer to claiming that it can use Watson to expedite the tedious and resource-intensive process of data aggregation and normalization. Together with patient matching and attribution, these precursor steps remain an expensive stumbling block for HCOs wanting to invest in better clinician and patient engagement applications.

Whether the company is serious about leveraging its healthcare data model for analytics to make this data integration easier or merely dusting off a little-used resource remains to be seen. Nevertheless, this day amounted to a broad-brush description of how IBM Watson Health will use its constituent parts to help HCOs better engage patients and clinicians. It, along with every other big enterprise software company still interested in HCOs, is playing catch up to Qlik and Tableau in the reporting/dashboard category. It demoed some functionality that compares well to these new-kids-in-BI-town. How this functionality is incorporated into the day-to-day for Explorys or Phytel bears watching.

Our Conclusions:

There is urgency at IBM Watson Health to contribute to HIT. For now it is targeted at the very largest HCOs, and point-of-care applications are not well developed.

Pricing is vague and likely to remain so. IBM’s long success with relatively price-insensitive large enterprises is not a guarantee in healthcare. How IBM intends to move down market to the average HCO remains in question.

IBM is in the HIT business for real. If it can settle the pricing, distribution, and product integration questions, it stands to compete favorably with better-established HIT vendors.

Stay up to the minute.

“As biometric data becomes cheaper and easier to collect through smart sensors, devices, and mobile apps, expect to see more innovations in consumer health.”

-Alicia Vergaras