All the health data on a single person collected by personal fitness trackers, mobile apps and electronic medical records could add up to more than 1 million gigabytes of health data in the average lifetime – the equivalent of about 300 million books. IBM has partnered with Apple and other companies in an effort to harness that data to improve personalized medical care for patients, as well as provide new insights for both medical research and health insurers.
IBM’s new Watson Health unit aims to analyze personal health data using the cognitive computing approach of its Watson artificial intelligence system. The technoloy giant is also building an online data-sharing hub named the Watson Health Cloud that will bring together clinical, research and social data from a swarm of sources. As part of the effort, IBM has teamed up with Apple to collect health data from iOS apps that are built upon Apple’s HealthKit and ResearchKit software frameworks. That means any personal health data entered by customers using such apps on their iPhones and iPads could flow to the Watson Health Cloud.
“Our deep understanding and history in the healthcare industry will help ensure that doctors and researchers can maximize the insights available through Apple’s HealthKit and ResearchKit data,” said John E. Kelly III, senior vice president of the IBM research and solutions portfolio, in a press release.
IBM has also joined forces with Johnson & Johnson to develop intelligent virtual coaching apps that could talk to patients about managing their overall wellness and chronic conditions. For example, the first generation of such apps might help patients dealing with joint replacements and spine surgeries. Johnson & Johnson hopes to take advantage of the new IBM-Apple partnership to launch new apps aimed at iPhone and iPad users.
Several companies recently acquired by IBM will also contribute their health data to the Watson Health Cloud. One new acquisition is Explorys, a healthcare intelligence cloud company that has amassed clinical data about more than 50 million lives. IBM has also acquired Phytel, a company that has developed health management software to analyze elecronic medical records to help reduce patient hospital readmissions and automate efforts to keep tabs on patients.
A separate IBM partnership with Medtronics aims to combine analytics software with health-monitoring devices to deliver more personalized care for the millions of people who have diabetes.
The idea of personal health data becoming shareable information for physicians, medical researchers and health insurers naturally comes with some privacy concerns for individuals. But Kelly told the New York Times that the personal data read by the Watson Health Cloud would be made anonymous. He also added that none of the data analyzed by Watson would actually be taken from hospital or health company data centers and put in a huge centralized database.
The new IBM announcements come on the heel of news that the company would invest $3 billion in a new business unit focused on analyzing the rivers of data coming from Internet-connected devices.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.