Dr. Iltifat Husain’s physician take is at the end of this article

One of the latest IBM-related medical projects, the Watson Health Cloud aims to merge clinical, research and social data from a variety of health sources, creating what it calls a “data sharing hub powered by the most advanced cognitive and analytic technologies.” The Health Cloud can bring together data from fitness apps, electronic medical records, and genomic and clinical research, much of which is underutilized, to create a secure central repository. And given the amount of health-related information that each of us generates over time, a resource like the Watson Health Cloud has arrived on the scene at an opportune moment. IBM Research points out that: “The average person is likely to generate more than one million gigabytes of health-related data in their lifetime. Equivalent to 300 million books.”

Researchers and clinicians have barely scraped the surface of this huge treasure trove of data. Nor has this health data been fully utilized to generate actionable information. The Rand Corporation points out, for instance, that less than 50% of medical decisions are based on evidence-based standards, leaving patients and healthcare providers with less than optimal treatment options.

In April, IBM launched its Watson Health platform, and now it has set up a facility in Cambridge, Massachusetts, giving its team access to top-flight universities, as well as several biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies. With Deborah DiSanzo, former CEO at Philips Healthcare, as general manager, Watson Health Cloud has developed partnerships with, Apple, Columbia University Medical Center, Johnson & Johnson, Medtronic, and Boston Children’s Hospital. Boston Children’s will be using Watson’s digital tools for its OPENPediatrics initiative, which allows hospitals and clinics worldwide to share pediatric information. BCH sums up the knowledge sharing initiative this way: “OPENPediatrics is an online community of clinicians sharing best practices from all resource settings around the world through innovative collaboration and digital learning technologies.”

The company has also joined forces with Explorys and Phytel.  IBM explains that: “Explorys has compiled one of the largest healthcare databases in the world, derived from numerous and diverse financial, operational, and medical record source systems. Phytel works with healthcare providers’ current electronic medical record technologies to reduce patient hospital readmissions and to automate and improve patient outreach and engagement.”

Dr. Iltifat Husain’s take:

As IBM’s Watson continues to expand its scope I am waiting to see some sort of significant tangible results of all the headway the IBM team has made in healthcare. Right now, I feel we’re bordering on more hype than actual results, and we’re already several years removed from when we first heard Watson was being used in healthcare. Another interesting point to note is the Rand Corporation citing how less than 50% of medical decisions are based on evidence based standards. The reason for this isn’t necessarily lack of knowledge, but local practice patterns.  

The general public thinks that medical care is strictly evidence based – which it’s not. There are a host of other social and local factors that influence management of care, and care is often based on local standard of care.  The most cited example of this is often in lawsuits. In lawsuits it often matters more what your local practice of care is rather than what evidence based care is. Further, not all providers and health institutions have the same access to medical resources, making the practice of uniform care not realistic.

I’m still extremely excited about IBM’s Watson and its potential in medicine. IBM has a good track record of optimizing business, and if they can do the same to medicine by actually improving clinical outcomes then I’m all for it. Right now though I’d love to see a study pop up on PubMed that actually shows Watson improving clinical outcomes.