IBM plays its healthcare hand

IBM has signed a trio of deals that reveal its ambitions to become a major player in the big data revolution in healthcare.

The alliances with Apple and pharma companies Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and Medtronic are all part of IBM’s strategy to supply the architecture that will allow us to make sense of the wealth of data coming out of wearable sensors and other leading-edge health technologies.

At the heart of the initiative is a new Boston-based business unit – called IBM Watson Health – that will deploy IBM’s artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud-based data-sharing expertise in health applications. It is also buying two companies to help flesh out its offering, namely healthcare database specialist Explorys and electronic medical record company Phytel.

The ultimate aim is to provide “a secure and open platform for physicians, researchers, insurers and companies focused on health and wellness solutions” it said in a statement.

“The results will be better insights, real-time feedback and recommendations to improve everything from personal health and wellness to acute and chronic care.”

The Watson AI or ‘cognitive computing’ engine is already being used to aid drug discovery in pharma companies and has been seeing broader use since IBM launched a toolkit last year to help software developers build applications.

Among big pharma companies, Sanofi is using Watson to scan published literature to identify signals that could help the development of new drugs, while J&J is using it to handle clinical trial data and help physicians select the best drug for their patients.

Meanwhile, in academia, Baylor College of Medicine has deployed it to analyse published articles on the p53 cancer gene to try to predict what other proteins affect its function.

IBM’s agreement with Apple will provide a secure cloud platform and analytics for Apple’s HealthKit and ResearchKit tools, covering data generated by iOS devices such as the iPhone and new Apple Watch.

The J&J collaboration will focus on the creation of intelligent coaching systems centred on preoperative and postoperative patient care, with a particular focus on joint replacement and spinal surgery, while Medtronic and IBM will develop health management applications for people with diabetes.

“Healthcare providers and hospital systems are actively trying to make their approach to care more consumer-centric and to understand their patients in new ways,” said John Kelly, IBM’s senior vice president, solutions portfolio and research.

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