Watson Gets Data, But Does IBM Get Health?

by | Sep 10, 2015


Welcome to Cambridge, Dr. Watson

IBM Watson Health’s kickoff event this morning across the river in Cambridge had some demos and a number of executive guest speakers, but offered little new or substantive insight into a grand strategy for healthcare. What we did learn: The company will expand its partnership with Boston Children’s Hospital’s OPENPediatrics, a kind of Facebook for hospital-based pediatricians and clinicians around the world. It also appointed Deborah DiSanzo (former head of Philips Healthcare) as new General Manager of the Watson Health division. Finally, it announced a regulation-compliant cloud offering for companies seeking FDA approval.

These are welcome developments for a brand that has gained major momentum in just a few years. Though IBM Watson Health was officiallly launched five months ago, IBM has spent most of the year feverishly investing in acquisitions, alliances, and other collaborations, amassing a constellation of technology vendors, research firms, drug developers, biotechnology companies, healthcare partners, and other organizations. In its acquisitions of Explorys, Phytel, and Merge Healthcare, IBM bought a foothold in mainstream HIT.

This event showcased these arrangements with participation from Medtronic, Teva, CVS Health, Merge, and others. Several presenters jousted over the right to call themselves IBM Watson Health’s most enthusiastic partner. Big names such as Apple, J&J, and a litany of health systems were briefly on display on the screen as well. We were pleasantly surprised to learn of other partnerships – like one with Bupa that will combine the patient engagement expertise of a platform like Health Dialog with an interactive, intelligent question & answer platform (complete with a sense of humor!) to help people set and achieve health goals. During this particular demo, I was thinking the whole time about how much my own mother would benefit from such a tool (and wondering if and when IBM would ever make this available for the common patient…)

Watson Health is evidently on the fast track to becoming a health data crunching behemoth. Yet, we were left wondering what exactly IBM wants to do with it. While there was a lot of rhetoric and buzzwords, there was unfortunately no deeper strategy on display. We think we understand what IBM is trying to do: it has developed what it regards as a top-shelf search engine that it plans to use in healthcare. The actual technology seems to have something to do with collecting, organizing, normalizing, and aggregating data about patients which it then marries to genomics and device data — in other words a patient longitudinal record. How or if this will actually be done is anyone’s guess.

IBM will integrate Watson Health into both its purchased technologies (Explorys, Phytel, Merge, etc.) and its partner’s technologies (Teva Pharmaceuticals, CVS Health, Medtronic and others). There were no timelines available; all we know is it will take place in the cloud. For now, IBM Watson Health’s emphasis seems to be skewed heavily toward pharma and devices.

We hope that this isn’t the entire picture. Will Watson be the unifying thread to share data from medical devices and pharmacies with doctors at the point of care, using their EHRs? IBM has ambitions in a dozen or more different corners of healthcare, but has not connected the dots. During a panel session for example, Medtronic spoke about sending diabetics device data into Watson, and then CVS Health spoke about sending the encounter data from consumers with diabetes into Watson. Are these the same patients? Are there correlations? Who will benefit from or act on those insights – patients, care managers, primary care physicians? How, where, when will this all take place?

To be fair, we are still very much in the early days of this undertaking. Speakers touched briefly on many of the big emerging themes in healthcare (shift to value, data liquidity, insight-driven business planning, etc.)  but as a whole, IBM missed a couple of the most important ones:

  1. Patient-Centeredness – IBM paid little more than lip service to this critical element of healthcare transformation. Doctors, executives, researchers, technologists all had a chance to speak, but patients were left out of the picture, as always. The only patient narrative was fittingly, an ad, shown on stage, which was also run about a million times over the long weekend for the US Open.
  2. Payer Involvement — Without telling us how these major players will be involved, its story on supporting the shift to value-based care remains incomplete. We can only guess that IBM Watson Health and IBM’s insurance industry organization are still negotiating their respective turfs.

Is there more behind the curtain?

Zooming out, IBM’s big company ceremonial was on full display. The brand new glass and steel building and the fancy, haute-couture food prepared by “Chef Watson” were nice flourishes but the overall impression left something to be desired. The decision not to take any questions from the audience, the near-zero diversity among speakers, and the tight reliance on scripted teleprompters all left us questioning if there is truly a culture of innovation behind the curtain. In the end it is clear that IBM Watson Health has joined the fight to bend the cost curve and improve the healthcare system. While Watson Health’s technology may turn information into insight, IBM has a lot left to do beyond marketing.


(Co-authored with Brian Murphy)


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