IBM unveils new Watson Health unit

Company to acquire two medical data software companies

IBM this week announced a new business unit, three partnerships, and two acquisitions that together aim to leverage data analytics to improve the efficiency and quality of personal health.

The new unit, called Watson Health, will have about 2,000 employees, about 75 of whom will be medical practitioners. It will be headquartered in Boston. The new venture also involves:

  • Industry partnerships with Apple, Johnson & Johnson, and Medtronic; and
  • The acquisition of medical data software companies Explorys and Phytel.

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Project details

Watson Health is a cloud-based service that aggregates and analyzes health information from a large number of devices and sources to offer insights to various stakeholders, including providers, researchers, and potentially patients.

Each of the Watson Health partners will contribute patient data to the venture. For example, Apple will provide data gleaned from mobile applications running on iPhones or iPads, including heart rates, fitness and nutrition information, and Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic will provide data from their patient devices.

IBM will further bolster its data trove through the acquisitions of Explorys and Phytel, which hold clinical information for more than 50 million patients.

Ultimately, Watson Health plans to leverage the data to create new applications for patients and providers that can help create individualized treatment plans. For example:

  • IBM plans to create a suite of enterprise wellness apps;
  • Johnson & Johnson plans to create mobile-based coaching systems for patients before and after surgery, as well as apps for chronic conditions; and
  • Medtronic intends to use the data to develop personalized care plans for patients with diabetes.

The companies will all share revenue with IBM on any apps they sell.

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Privacy concerns

Privacy advocates have general concerns over the collection of health information, the Washington Post's "The Switch" reports. They have noted that such collection could lead to:

  • Data mining;
  • Discrimination; and
  • Inappropriate advertising.

Regarding such concerns, IBM's project will offer methods to strip personal information from data gleaned from consumer devices.

In addition, the companies will only provide data from patients who have given their consent.

However, the cloud also will allow the data to be de-anonymized when physicians need a patient's specific information (Rigby, Reuters, 4/13; Dwoskin, Wall Street Journal, 4/13; Lohr, "Bits," New York Times, 4/13; Tsukayama, "The Switch," Washington Post, 4/13).

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