IBM CEO: Watson Health is ‘Our Moonshot’ in Healthcare

Register now

A new IBM business unit launched last week to help physicians, researchers, insurers and patients use big data, analytics and mobile technology to achieve better health outcomes is being described by the company’s chief executive officer as their “moonshot” in healthcare.

“If you go back in time, we have participated in some of the most glorious moments of history, whether it might have been the first systems that ever did census and landing a man on the moon,” said Ginni Rometty, chairman and CEO of IBM, on PBS’s Charlie Rose talk show. “I’m telling you our moonshot will be the impact we will have on healthcare. It has already started. We will do our part to change the face of healthcare. I am absolutely positive about it.”

Last week, IBM announced a new business unit—Watson Health—that will offer cloud-based access to its Watson supercomputer for analyzing healthcare data. Big Blue has partnered with Apple, Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic to make it easier for healthcare organizations to store and analyze patient data by leveraging Watson’s cognitive capabilities and creating “new health-based offerings that leverage information collected from personal health, medical and fitness devices” providing “better insights, real-time feedback and recommendations to improve everything from personal health and wellness to acute and chronic care.”

Also See: IBM Joins With Apple, J&J to Analyze Health Data in the Cloud

“With the first generation of computers they counted things. The second generation you have to program them. What Watson represents—we use the word cognitive—is a system that learns. You don’t program it,” said Rometty, who added that the supercomputer has first tackled oncology, which she called “one of the toughest problems.” For example, New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center has been feeding medical literature on cancer over three years to Watson, and the supercomputer has been learning how cancer has been traditionally treated.

“What Watson can do is look at all your medical records—he has been fed and taught by all the best doctors in the world—and comes up with what are the probable diagnosis, percent of confidence, the why/rationale, odds, and conflicts,” said Rometty. Among different types of cancer, she said there are many false-negative and false-positive results in diagnosing cancer and that Watson’s first task is working on melanoma and “how to read melanomas that are actually cancerous and not.”

Three technology trends are converging at once—big data, cloud, and mobility—making medical breakthroughs possible, according to Rometty, who revealed that these technologies already represent 27 percent of IBM’s business. The Watson Health Cloud platform will “enable secure access to individualized insights and a more complete picture of the many factors that can affect people’s health,” according to the announcement.  IBM says each person generates one million gigabytes of health-related data across his or her lifetime, the equivalent of more than 300 million books.

“Ten percent of the information in your lifetime collected about you will be the formal medical records that you know of today,” Rometty argued. “Another 20 percent will be the genomics [data] that’s starting to happen. There is another 70 percent, which people call exogenous data,” that includes “what your Fitbit or Apple Watch” will collect. “And, with that, you have a whole other world that can mean health and wellness for the individual.”   

Targeting the Enterprise

In July 2014, IBM and Apple joined forces to bring Big Blue’s core competencies in big data and analytics to Apple’s iPhone and iPad in an exclusive agreement whose goal is to create a new class of more than 100 industry-specific enterprise solutions, including native apps developed from the ground up for healthcare. IBM and Apple will expand their partnership with Watson Health Cloud to provide a secure cloud platform and analytics for Apple’s health-tracking software HealthKit and ResearchKit, a new open source software framework designed to revolutionize medical research by turning iPhone users into powerful diagnostic tools for gathering health data.

What Apple brings to the partnership is one of the strongest consumer brands in mobile technology known for ease of use, said Rometty. IBM, on the other hand, offers its strength in enterprise computing. “We’re really the gold standard for the enterprise and they are the gold standard for consumers,” she said. “We’re taking those consumer technologies into the enterprise.” The idea behind the IBM-Apple collaboration is to “reimagine work in the enterprise” and to “take their simple consume-ability and then our ability to know industries, workflow, integration” and “improve every business decision” by “truly understanding the data.”

Earlier this month, as part of its MobileFirst for iOS partnership with Apple, IBM released four new enterprise mobile apps—Hospital RN, Hospital Lead, Hospital Tech, and Home RN—the first such apps developed for the healthcare industry. The apps, three for iPhone and one for iPad, are designed specifically for nurses.

According to Rometty, to date industries like healthcare have not been reimagining how work is conducted. “In the workplace with mobile devices, 70 percent of the time it’s email and calendaring,” she said. However, in the case of the latest nursing apps, the IBM-Apple partnership is an attempt to provide additional high-value functionality to the hospital setting.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.