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For many people today, health is something you think about when you go in for check-ups or treatments. Your doctor has your clinical history and runs tests, but her understanding of your health is basically limited to what happens and what you discuss while you are there. And somewhere you know that researchers are making new discoveries – but you’re not connected to the discovery process.
But with today’s big data revolution, a huge change is coming to healthcare. Data is pouring out from every facet of our lives – our smart phones, Fitbits, genome sequencing, and increasingly digital health records. The combination of diverse data sources and types, new algorithms for spotting patterns in data, and cognitive computing has the potential to improve outcomes for individuals, help physicians and other care providers do their best work, and help employers and payers control costs. It’s a perfect storm—one we believe has the power to improve health and healthcare.
The medical community has begun using these new data sources to unlock the potential of population health, which is the view of health outcomes across large groups of individuals rather than just a specific patient. Using these tools, we can more easily connect a person’s health status with the factors that contribute to their health and well-being—including interventions by caregivers, policies set by governments, and day-to-day activities and behaviors.
The healthcare community is embracing the big data opportunity to take on healthcare – treating it as one large complex system with many interdependencies—rather than one silo at a time. From research to clinical care and every day wellness, this is the only way we can hope to find solutions to the big health-related challenges that confront society.
A Personal Perspective
These advances are a vindication for many us who saw the value of informatics and technology on health ever since using the first home PC. Since my undergraduate days, I have sought to transform healthcare through innovation. I studied biomedical engineering with the goal of inventing better medical devices; then went to medical school and became a practicing physician at Cleveland Clinic where I focused on technology implementation and medical informatics. That work resulted in co-founding and spinning out Explorys, a health data analytics and population health startup. After Explorys was purchased by IBM last year, I now work for IBM’s Watson Health team – and I’m more energized than ever with the tremendous and unique opportunity we have to transform health.
Here, I’m putting to work all that I have learned throughout my career to help develop and promote a platform, Watson Health Cloud, which I believe has the potential to fulfill the promise of the data revolution that’s coming for population health.
The Promise of the Watson Health Cloud
Imagine a place that contains all of the important pieces of health information from millions of individuals—everything from electronic medical records to information about their visits to doctors including costs, to details of their medical insurance coverage, to vital stats gathered from wearable devices like Apple Watches and Fitbits, to local weather reports. It also contains a huge corpus of medical textbooks and journal articles.
Then combine that vast collection of data and information with a rich portfolio of analytics tools, including statistical models, algorithms, and cognitive technologies that are capable of learning and reasoning over data to drive actionable insights. The platform has rich security features—yet will be easily accessible by a provider no matter where they render care – whether a large hospital system or small village in a remote corner of the world. Wrap it all together and you’ve got the vision for Watson Health Cloud.
Population Health Management, and Beyond
IBM launched Watson Health with a bang at the Health Information Management and Systems Society (HIMSS) Annual Conference less than a year ago. At the time, IBM announced the acquisitions of Exploys and Phytel, bringing together best of breed health data and population analytics with care coordination and patient engagement. Explorys focuses on integrating clinical and operational data from hospitals and other healthcare providers to drive population analytics. Phytel integrates clinical and visit data to drive patient engagement to address gaps in care. Imagine the power of bringing these offerings together in one platform. And imagine using these technologies with our partners–from Medtronic to Johnson & Johnson to CVS Health and Apple.
Since the launch, IBM made an additional acquisition—of Merge Healthcare, which brought a wealth of medical imaging data and related services. And just last week we announced the intent to acquire Truven Health Analytics, which collects and analyzes data for federal and state government agencies, employers, health plans, hospitals and provides solutions for life sciences companies.
You can see what’s going on here. IBM has collected an unparalleled body of diverse health-related data, including 300 million records spanning clinical, claims, and operational data.
So Watson Health Cloud will be a combination of data, data analytics, cognitive technologies, software solutions and ecosystem partners to drive data-driven and knowledge-driven insights. I think of it as a collaboration platform for IBM, our business partners and our clients–with individuals as the main beneficiaries. Healthcare companies, working on their own or with IBM or other partners, can bring their own data into the Watson Health Cloud, potentially combine it when permissible with other data that will be added, and use the analytics technologies to create powerful new systems for managing patient care and operations.
Helping Doctors Use Insights to Improve Care
By combining diverse types of data from a wide variety of sources, they will be able to discover patterns that were not readily apparent.. For instance, they might be able to use a combination of data from wearable devices with records of doctor visits to spot a pre-diabetic condition emerging. Or they might be able to establish new links between sleep habits and health conditions.
Today, a physician has more than 20 therapeutic choices when they’re beginning to treat a patient for diabetes. By combining knowledge from population health data with information about a particular patient, they might be able to quickly narrow down the choices to the one or two drugs that seem most likely to help that individual.
Building and leveraging this growing set of data is our great challenge. This feels like a quest. In fact, I can remember the day the journey started for me. It was 2011. Once again, I was at the annual HIMSS conference, like I am today. IBM’s Watson had just weeks before defeated two human champions on the TV quiz show Jeopardy! There was a lot of excitement in the air. A group of us from Cleveland Clinic met with members of the Watson team in a hotel conference room in Orlando. We agreed to work together to help apply cognitive technologies to healthcare.
Join Us in the Quest
Now, here I am, five years later. We’ve made great progress. Yet I feel like we’re still at the beginning of one of the most significant opportunities we’ve ever had in the way healthcare is delivered. Here’s my message to others who are attending HIMSS: Let’s meet. Let’s find ways of working together to transform health. What happens in Vegas around Health must not stay in Vegas!