Everyone remembers that seminal moment in the history of the Jeopardy game show when the Watson supercomputer beat humans.
That was 2011, but the moment had wider ramifications beyond television history. The win crystallized the possibility that machine learning and cognitive computing can triumph over the smartest processor of all: the human brain.
Watson’s creator, IBM—aka Big Blue—revved up that machine learning with the likes of MD Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, in New York City, to see how cognitive computing involving patient data can be applied in healthcare. Those partnerships helped bring about the realization that crunching large volumes of data from different sources, detecting patterns, suggesting solutions, and allowing others to build applications on top of IBM’s cloud-based technology presents a real business opportunity.
Earlier this year, the Armonk, NY-based tech veteran launched IBM Watson Health as a separate business with headquarters in Massachusetts. Along with the announcement, IBM entered into partnerships with Apple, Johnson & Johnson, and Medtronic.
“I think we’ve got an incredible combination of both cognitive knowledge-based learnings and analytics combined with data-driven machine learning technologies, both of which represent more than 10 years of research investment by IBM,” says Kathy McGroddy-Goetz, vice president of partnerships and solutions at IBM Watson Health. “We’ve had about 150 people working worldwide on healthcare problems—big data in healthcare as well as genomics, other life sciences technologies, drug-delivery capabilities—so we had all these technologies, and we realized if we had to bring this together and set it up as cloud-delivered services to solidify as a service, then we could start to really seed an ecosystem.”
That research is now being put to work.
“Say you have a 52-year-old woman with breast cancer. Today, Watson can tell which clinical trials she would be eligible for . . .” McGroddy-Goetz explains.
Watson Health’s clinical trial–matching capability can show, for example, that there are three other clinical trials that could be beneficial to the patient, but to be eligible she would need to stop taking another medication she is currently on.
“So it actually gives the doctor and the patient a lot more power in the conversation they are having because they can talk about the options and the pros and cons and make decisions based on the evidence that has been presented to support these recommendations . . .” McGroddy-Goetz says.
For doctors, IBM’s analytics tool can help make sense of the data.
“There can be so much data out there that you can be overwhelmed by the noise and have trouble finding the signal in the noise,” McGroddy-Goetz says. “You need the analytics to find the insights from the data.”
That helps doctors make clinical decisions. IBM Watson’s Oncology Tool, developed with Memorial Sloan Kettering, aims to provide that level of clinical decision support.
“Instead of going down the hall to find the expert to ask for guidance on a case that you are dealing with, you have a Watson system there that can provide you with some additional information and context, and maybe a recommendation. For instance, Watson can say the “majority of patients like this one who were treated in this way had a better outcome than with this alternative treatment,” McGroddy-Goetz explains.
That is powerful because that capability can help to democratize access to the best care for patients living far away from specialty hospitals.
“The power of it is that you can scale that out to community hospitals,” McGroddy-Goetz says. “Now imagine being a cancer patient who can be treated at your local community hospital [instead of traveling to a specialty hospital like Memorial Sloan Kettering].”
Aside from enabling doctors to deliver better care, IBM Watson also holds value for companies like Medtronic that are trying to play a broader role in the continuum of care outside of their traditional sweet spot—hospitals. In fact, in announcing the official launch of IBM Watson Health in April, IBM also announced that the standalone business unit would partner with the likes of Medtronic, Johnson & Johnson, and Apple.
“With IBM, the focus is primarily on diabetes, where we want to use the Watson analytics expertise and apply it to the dataset that we collect on a regular basis from patients with diabetes and see if we can use those analytics to better manage patient care,” explains Medtronic CEO Omar Ishrak.
The partnerships and acquisitions IBM Watson Health has announced since its launch are meant to connect disparate dots of data trapped in devices, medical imaging, and electronic medical records, as well as clinical research journals and consumer devices such as smartphones.
The goal is simple: “We really want this to be both a technology platform and a business platform where people are going to come to collaborate and create this huge ecosystem and transform healthcare,” McGroddy-Goetz says.
Arundhati Parmar is senior editor at MD+DI. Reach her at [email protected] and on Twitter @aparmarbb
|Kathleen McGroddy-Goetz will be speaking about how to optimize data collection and analysis for better patient outcomes at a 2-day conference in Minneapolis hosted by MD&M Minneapolis and LifeScience Alley on Nov.5|