Watson Health partners with drug and devicemakers to tap into real-world data


Photo Credit: Thomas B. Shea/Feature Photo Service for IBM

IBM's Watson, at its very core, is meant to answer questions. After all, one of its first real-world applications was besting contestants at trivia while on the TV show “Jeopardy!” in 2011.

Lucky for IBM, Watson isn't just adept at answering questions about obscure trivia — it also represents a possible route for drugmakers to better understand real-world data and use that information to try to solve some of the industry's most pressing questions, like: Why aren't patients taking their medications? How can I bring my drug to market more efficiently? What kind of support do patients really need?

“We're trying to be a catalyst to transform the industry,” said Kathy McGroddy-Goetz, vice president of partnerships and solutions for Watson Health. “It's about leveraging a foundation of data and knowledge.”



IBM has been building that foundation of knowledge with a number of significant investments. Most recently, IBM Watson Health acquired Truven Health Analytics for $2.6 billion. That acquisition not only brought in Truven's 8,500 clients but also added “200 million lives,” or records, to the company's data coffers in the process. As of February 2016, IBM's health cloud houses data about roughly 300 million lives.

See also: What is cognitive computing, and what does it look like in healthcare?

Truven is IBM Watson's fourth major healthcare-related acquisition since it launched Watson Health in April 2015. It has also bought Phytel, Explorys, and Merge Healthcare.

So far, IBM has been quick to partner with life-science companies to make use of that data. Watson Health has publicly announced deals with 18 different companies and patient organizations over the past few years, broadening its reach to include drugmakers, devicemakers, technology companies, health systems, medical associations and even startups. So, what exactly is IBM Watson helping all these different companies accomplish? And how is it doing it?

See also: Watson Health's announced partnerships

To start, McGroddy-Goetz says that that IBM Watson is helping patients better use the healthcare industry's products.

Enter Johnson & Johnson orthopedics business, DePuy Synthes. IBM announced a partnership with the J&J device franchise in April 2015. 

“In the research they've done, people on average take five to seven years before they even have [a knee or hip replacement] surgery,” she noted, and on top of that, “the outcomes are often not as desireable as we would like them to be.”

DePuy Synthes has faced a number of recalls in recent years. In 2010, the company's metal-on-metal hip replacement was recalled after it found 12% of patients would need revision surgery five years after receiving the implant. In March of this year, the company issued a recall for the titanium nails used in small bone fractures.  

The solution, based on cognitive insights generated by Watson Health, was to create the Patient Athlete, a pre- and postoperative video health coaching program, inspired by a J&J executive who wanted to return to playing competitive tennis after a knee replacement surgery. The idea behind it, McGroddy-Goetz said, is to help patients undergoing a joint-replacement surgery be more goal-oriented and better define their expectations.

“It's meant to engage with people and help them throughout their journey and get them motivated to a point where they figure out what's important to them, why they want this, and why they want to recover,” she added.

Watson is also finding a niche in helping drug and device makers make that shift from being a product maker to evolving into a company that offers its customers solutions. In line with that thinking, IBM Watson Health and Medtronic announced a partnership aimed at improving care in diabetes

“They collect a lot of data through blood glucose monitors and insulin pumps,” said  McGroddy-Goetz, “but they didn't have the ability to generate cognitive insights that could transform easily into services and solutions.”

With Watson's help, the two companies are set to release an app later this year that will essentially serve as a personal assistant to diabetics. “We think it can be transformative,” she said. “It will give them all kinds of insight around nutrition activity and we think it can be broad based solution for chronic disease management.”

See also: How Watson for Oncology is advancing cancer care

One feature of the app could be a text-message service that tells the patient that a low blood sugar or hypoglycemic event is likely to occur in the next hour, according to Bloomberg.

Watson's work with diabetes patients is not just only with devicemakers. The company has also partnered with Novo Nordisk — one of the largest providers of insulin in the world.



McGroddy-Goetz said this partnership, too, is centered around how to help patients better manage a chronic disease.

“In the past, a pharma company wouldn't necessarily know who their patients are,” she said. ”Now they're trying much more to engage patients and find ways to understand more about them. That's become really valuable to them. They're one of the pharma companies that's clearly trying to become an ehealth type of business.”

The Danish drugmaker is working with Watson Health to develop a type of virtual coach to help better inform decisions about insulin dosage. Watson will also analyze health data from diabetics to ultimately help them better manage the diseases. That data could end up informing a tool, like a mobile app, that could help take some of the guesswork out of diet, exercise, and insulin.

See also: A look at Watson Health in New York

“In diabetes especially, you're always interested in food and activity,” McGroddy-Goetz explained. “It's a disease where so much happens between visits to the doctors.”

For McGroddy-Goetz, Watson is just getting started in healthcare. She sees the supercomputer moving into clinical-trial design, reducing the need for in-person doctor visits, and being used to leverage experience and real-world evidence to take out costs in the healthcare system and to get products to market sooner.