The crush of Big Data in healthcare is creating information overload challenges that can only be solved by the cognitive computing capabilities of IBM’s Watson supercomputer, one of the company's executives contends.

By quickly identifying patterns and insights from the tsunami of data, Watson is designed to find the proverbial needle in a haystack that will lead to medical breakthroughs and better patient care.

So says Mike Svinte, vice president of global client engagement for IBM Watson Health, a business unit launched in April to help physicians, researchers, insurers and patients leverage big data, analytics and mobile technology to achieve better outcomes.

“Each one of us in this room will generate the equivalent of 300 million books of data—the challenge is how do we take advantage of that data,” said Svinte on Thursday during a keynote session at the MedTech 2015 conference in Buffalo, N.Y. “A vast amount of untapped data could have a great impact on our health yet it exists outside medical systems.”

According to Svinte, 10 percent of the medical information collected during a person’s lifetime includes clinical data that becomes a part of formal medical records, 30 percent is genomics data, and 60 percent is exogenous data generated in part by mobile devices and wearable sensors that is a gold mine of data that remains to be mined.

Watson Health offers cloud-based access to its Watson supercomputer for analyzing the enormous amounts of data being generated, partnering 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.

Svinte said cognitive-based systems like Watson, which use data mining, pattern recognition and natural language processing to mimic the way the human brain works, can rapidly and intelligently parse through disparate data to improve health information sharing for better patient outcomes. He added that leveraging Big Data would be an impossible task in healthcare without cognitive computing systems, which understand natural language and actually learn.

“We have a system now that ingests and understands within context million and millions of unstructured text-type documents,” Svinte said, adding that Watson serves as a “learned colleague” that analyzes a patient’s medical information against a vast array of data and expertise to provide oncologists with evidence-based treatment options.

Fourteen major cancer centers are using Watson’s to quickly analyze patients’ DNA, identify cancer-causing mutations and speed identification of personalized treatments.

Also See:Cancer Centers, Epic to Tap Power of IBM Watson Supercomputer

“We have 90 million lives in the U.S. for which we have clinical, longitudinal data now,” said Svinte, referring to Watson Care Manager, a population health management system using Apple apps to enable consumers to collect and share data with clinicians. Leveraging IBM’s recent acquisitions of care management vendor Phytel and population health analytics vendor Explorys, Care Manager holds data on 90 million lives, which includes 315 billion longitudinal data points associated with them, according to Svinte.

IBM’s HIPAA-compliant cloud continues to receive data through Apple's HealthKit and ResearchKit, an open source platform that allows medical researchers to collect patient data from mobile apps. Sage Bionetworks, a not-for-profit organization offering an open biomedical research platform, is using Watson Health Cloud to aggregate, store, curate and analyze data collected from ResearchKit apps. The initial focus is on Parkinson’s disease and breast cancer.

IBM is also working with the Mayo Clinic and electronic health record vendor Epic Systems on a proof-of-concept program to match patients to the most appropriate clinical trials. Under this collaboration, Svinte said that Watson is being used to “overlay” the Mayo Clinic’s Epic EHR to extract patient data and compare it to relevant clinical data from literature, studies and trials.

“Mayo sees a million patients, they have a thousand active trials, and they needed to match it very quickly, understanding what the inclusion and exclusion criteria are,” he commented.

Overall, Svinte emphasized that IBM Watson is still early in its journey of discovery, but the company is extremely encouraged by initial results that he believes will have a major impact on the health and well-being of patients worldwide. 

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