Dr Watson: IBM plans to use Big Data to manage diabetes and obesity

IBM’s supercomputer brain, Watson, is being used in an ever-widening number of situations. Last month it emerged that IBM is developing a “Siri for cities” in Canada. Now the company has announced it will work with a major US pharmacy chain to bring greater predictive analysis to healthcare.

Using Watson’s cognitive computing capabilities, IBM will harness vast amounts of healthcare data collected by CVS Health – a pharmacy chain that owns around 7,800 drugstores across the US. The two companies plan to use this medical data to make predictions about the health of patients suffering from chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

This new partnership marks a substantial leap into the healthcare sector for IBM, with CVS joining the likes of Apple and Medtronic as partners of IBM’s growing data service, Watson Health. By partnering up with CVS, Watson will be able to analyse and learn from “an unprecedented mix of health information sources”, including medical records, medical insurance claims and data from smart fitness devices.IBM watson

IBM claims this Big Data analysis will help predict when a patient’s health declines, and that this knowledge can be fed to doctors and pharmacists to flag up the need for medical attention. Less altruistic-sounding is the fact that the data will be made available to insurance companies to – according to the press release – suggest “appropriate use of cost-effective primary care and outpatient providers.”

“The capabilities of the IBM Watson Health Cloud, when coupled with CVS Health’s insights into medication utilisation and patient behavior, could prove transformative for the industry,” said Mike Rhodin, senior vice president of IBM Watson. “Improving care for people with chronic conditions supports IBM’s commitment to make big plays that advance the health and well-being of the global community.”

Should fitness trackers be used for medical purposes?

One particularly interesting aspect of this development is the potential integration of smart devices. Dr. Troyen Brennan, chief medical officer at CVS Health, told Forbes that the collaboration could help researchers learn whether “information about a patient’s activity levels from a tracker like a Fitbit could help us identify their risk for declining health.”

This raises a number of ethical questions. While connecting fitness trackers with medical practitioners may help doctors get a better overview of their patients, does connecting health data with insurance companies breach the confidentiality that exists between a patient and doctor? What if this data can be sent to government bodies or private companies? Is constantly monitoring our physical activity an unwarranted intrusion into our lives?

These questions may be premature – the collaboration between IBM and CVS is currently at the research and development stage – but what emerges from the partnership may prove to have big repercussions in the healthcare sector, meaning it’s important to delineate what is and isn’t private in terms of medical history.

A spokesperson from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society told Alphr: “We would be cautious of individual patient data being shared outside of the health and social care professionals who need that information to ensure the provision of the best care for the patient. It’s important that at all times the patient is in control of who their data is being shared with, and who can access their records.”

With this in mind, it will also be interesting to see whether a similar collaboration between IBM and CVS could work between IBM and the NHS in the UK – without the explicit involvement of private insurance companies. The comment from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society suggests that UK medical organisations would take issue with data being shared outside of the patient’s control.

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