Developments in digital health and personalised medicine

20 April 2015

Computer technology giant IBM has opened a dedicated health unit, Watson Health, to capitalise on data from increasingly popular health-linked wearables and apps.

Watson Health says that it is using IBM’s cognitive computing technology to  create ‘a more personalized picture of health’, empowering individuals to understand it better and doctors, researchers and health insurers to ‘make better, faster and more cost-effective decisions’.

The new Watson Health Cloud incorporates healthcare big data systems from two firms acquired by IBM, Explorys and Phytel and is said to allow connectivity between ‘previously siloed healthcare data sets’ to create ‘new data driven applications and solutions designed to advance health and wellness’.

These include a new partnership with Apple allowing IBM to to use health data from Apple Watches, as well as with medical devices firms including Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic. In the case of Apple, it will provide an app for users of Apple’s HealthKit platform to upload medical data to a secure cloud that can be made accessible to clinicians (and insurers). Similarly, users of Apple’s ResearchKit will be able to upload data for sharing with medical researchers.  Analytical tools will also be made available to physicians, researchers and insurers to help them use health data to support clinical trials ‘or help bring down rising healthcare costs’.

Senior vice-president of IBM Watson Michael Rhodin said that younger consumers were keen to contribute to medical research, explaining: “The generation who buy Apple Watches are interested in data philanthropy…Many of them have been touched by relatives or parents struck down by disease. Why wouldn’t they help researchers figure out what’s going on?”.

As the market for fitness and health data from wearable devices grows, concerns over privacy continue, although recent evidence has suggested that such concerns can be outweighed by perceived benefits. Some suggest that sharing health data may help health insurers or employers promote healthier lifestyles by provision of incentives for physical activity.

A new US report, Data for Health: Learning What Works, made a range of recommendations including the need to strengthen and modernise data governance policies to protect personal health information, whilst also investing in infrastructure and initiatives to encourage data sharing (including from social media) for public health benefits. Dr David Ross, director of the Public Health Informatics Institute, said: “Data moves at the speed of trust…Those are the words we heard from people across the country. As a nation, we need to strike a balance between privacy and the free flow of information”.

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