IBM's Watson Health division will incorporate patient data from Apple

Health care data stored on Watson Health Cloud will be de-identified, said IBM

IBM's Watson supercomputer can be used in many verticals, but healthcare arguably gets the most attention. So much medical data, from patient history to physician notes to medical journals, remains unstructured, making it difficult for machines to interpret it. Watson's capabilities, recently dubbed cognitive computing, can parse data, combine it with treatment guidelines and the latest medical studies, to suggest and score potential diagnoses — or even, some hypothesize, to cure cancer.

In addition, IBM's Smarter Healthcare initiative (part of its Smarter Cities project, itself part of the Smarter Planet) seeks ways to incorporate that insight into collaborative, patient-centered care processes as a means of emphasizing wellness and prevention, not sickness.

IBM's Watson supercomputer can be used in many verticals, but healthcare arguably gets the most attention. So much medical data, from patient history to physician notes to medical journals, remains unstructured, making it difficult for machines to interpret it. Watson's capabilities, recently dubbed cognitive computing, can parse data, combine it with treatment guidelines ...

The health information your Apple Watch collects could eventually end up in IBM's Watson cloud computing platform, where medical researchers and doctors can tap it in the course of their work.

On Monday, IBM launched the Watson Health business unit, which will focus on providing the health care community with the analysis tools required to make sense of the many forms of data used in clinical care.

When developing a treatment plan for a patient, doctors must factor in clinical trials information, medical journal articles and, increasingly, data gathered from wearables and medical devices, said Steve Gold, vice president of the Watson Group. The Watson Health Cloud aims to combine these data streams and help physicians make better-informed care decisions, he said.

"Health care data is very unstructured. There's exponentially more data available in text," said Gold.

The business unit will work with Apple, Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic on using Watson Health Cloud to analyze data provided by patients.

For clinicians who build apps with ResearchKit, Apple's recently announced framework for creating mobile apps for medical research, IBM will provide a cloud computing platform to store and analyze this data. The information will be de-identified and people must opt-in to contribute their data, IBM said.

Johnson & Johnson, which manufactures medical devices, surgical robots and pharmaceuticals, will work with IBM to develop mobile apps to help people better recover from joint replacement and spinal surgery and manage chronic ailments like diabetes. Johnson & Johnson will store the data on Watson and use the platform's cognitive abilities to answer patient questions.

Medtronic makes insulin pumps, glucose monitors and other devices for managing diabetes. Watson Health Cloud will receive information from these devices as well as from patients and analyze it to help doctors come up with more personalized treatments.

To beef up Watson's analytics capabilities, IBM acquired two companies that use big data to develop individualized care plans. One them, Explorys, has a cloud platform that incorporates clinical and financial information from various hospitals and individual care providers to identify treatment patterns and outcomes. The other, Phytel, sells cloud services to help care providers better collaborate and coordinate patient care.

Fred O'Connor writes about IT careers and health IT for The IDG News Service. Follow Fred on Twitter at @fredjoconnor. Fred's e-mail address is fred_o'connor@idg.com

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