Why IBM's Partnership with Medtronic, J&J and Apple is Significant

IBM is entering healthcare by leveraging its Big Data capabilities and cloud platform, and partnering with Apple, J&J and Medtronic. Why is the partnership notable?

Arundhati Parmar

By now, you already know the basic announcement from International Business Machines.

The technology giant is formally entering the healthcare market by launching the Watson Health Cloud, a secure and open platform for physicians, researchers, insurers and companies engaged in creating health and wellness solutions. It is also leveraging its Big Data analytics capabilities and partnering with medtech heavyweights like Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic, as well as Apple in separate endeavors to improve and transform personalized care.

Aside from the headline-grabbing big names involved in this collaboration, why is this significant? After all, a lot of companies want to analyze Big Data to glean actionable healthcare information. Why is this any different?

Here's a slightly edited response from Venkat Rajan, industry manager for medical devices with market research and intelligence firm Frost & Sullivan.

What makes this case particularly notable is the clout of the IBM brand and their proven track record of using their system for numerous other applications and industries. The Watson platform is particularly adept at "cognitive computing", which enables it to tackle large volumes of unstructured data. In healthcare the vast majority of information is unstructured data, and exists in various forms from patient history and biometric data to qualitative patient notes from a doctor or caregiver. This platform can integrate these various information streams in a manner that can be more usable.

Over the years, the name Watson - the supercomputer IBM has developed - has registered into our collective consciousness for instance by winning Jeopardy. For those of us interested in healthcare, we are also aware of Watson's use in hospitals to help in clinical decision support. And now the company is laying claim to one piece of the healthcare puzzle - how to translate data into insight.

"IBM has been for a few years now working with leading industry participants and prominent hospitals on pilot programs and proof of concept type work and I think this announcement signals the start of more widespread and commercial use of those tools," Rajan says in an email.

More and more companies want a piece of the healthcare pie, and entering the market formally like IBM did is a way for a storied company that has faltered with the decline of its hardware business to reinvent itself. 

Reinvention is also something that Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic are focused on.

J&J has been judiciously pruning its healthcare portfolio selling off companies like Cordis and Ortho-Clinical Diagnostics. The New Jersey company's CEO Dominic Caruso has publicly stated that there are opportunities for growth in areas like surgery, general surgery, specialty surgery, and orthopedics. The partnership with IBM draws on this latter growth opportunity but on the data and intelligence side. The New Jersey company will develop coaching systems to help with preoperative and post operative patient care in joint replacement and spinal surgery.

For Medtronic, the partnership with IBM is centered around diabetes where the Irish medtech company will take insights from the Watson Health Cloud platform to work with IBM and deliver personalized care management solutions for diabetes patients. This move comes as Medtronic has embarked on a journey of evolution.

Their traditional business model has been squared on selling products into a hospital system by developing close relationships with physicians. And now it wants to become more focused on outcomes and cost by leveraging hardware, data analytics and services centered around a direct customer - hospital/physician and an indirect customer - patient.

"Diabetes is an ideal approach for Medtronic to test that appaoach, because it is a disease that has a great deal of variability in terms of how it manifests in individuals," Rajan explains. "[It has] a wide range of ages, activity levels, diets, co-morbid conditions, so by developing something that is more individualized it enables the individual to better manage their disease and avoid negative outcomes."

The only company in the partnership not seeking to reinvent itself is Apple. But its CEO Tim Cook has publicly declared his interest in health and wellness, and in meetings with the FDA company executives have spoken of a "moral obligation" to do more in mobile health. With HealthKit and ResearchKit the California company has given people the ability to create and record their own health and wellness data. Pulling that into the Watson platform for analysis and insight to make that unstructured data more meaningful may be a step in fulfilling that moral obligation within the limitations of healthcare regulations. 

While all of the above is true, the proof of the pudding is still in the eating, so the industry will need to wait a while to see whether results bear out. 

 Arundhati Parmar is senior editor at MD+DI. Reach her at arundhati.parmar@ubm.com and on Twitter @aparmarbb 

 

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