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MOST INTERESTING VENDORS: At IBM, Providing Insights Beyond Human Cognition

July 23, 2015
by Rajiv Leventhal
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Advanced analytics added with IBM Watson’s cognitive capabilities is once again keeping IBM ahead of the game when it comes to healthcare technology

The general public might look at the Armonk, N.Y.-based International Business Machines Corporation, universally known as IBM, and still think of the multinational organization as a computer hardware and software company only. However, few areas of health and medicine have gone untouched by the technology, research and innovation generated by IBM in recent decades.

Having originated more than 100 years ago, the company has continuously evolved since its inception.  Over the last several years specifically, IBM has been focused on helping its provider organization clients in their objectives to serve their populations, and be more patient-centered and outcome-oriented in the work they do, says Sean Hogan, vice president and general manager of healthcare at IBM. “Now that we have had dramatic acceleration and adoption of electronic medical record (EMR) systems and other sources of information, how do we help organizations take advantage of that as an asset to better perform?” Hogan says, noting that IBM “doesn’t define itself as a product company, but one that innovates around solving problems.”

At the core of that, he adds, is doing analytics work for organizations, helping them get access to data and get confidence in their data, as well as completeness of it. The organization’s data analytics software already figures in prominent medical research trials with the Cleveland Clinic, Mayo Clinic, and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “If you’re not confident about the quality and completeness of information, it’s difficult to get teams to execute against that. Helping organizations manage their information is a major driver for how they’re serving populations,” Hogan says.

Another big part of IBM’s mission, Hogan says, is helping organizations take advantage of its migrate-to-cloud-based services. As such, the company made two major moves in April at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) conference in Chicago, announcing the acquisition of the Cleveland-based Explorys, a healthcare intelligence cloud firm, and Dallas-based population health management company Phytel. Regarding the Explorys acquisition, IBM officials noted that, “Since its spin-off from the Cleveland Clinic in 2009, Explorys has secured a robust healthcare database derived from numerous and diverse financial, operational and medical record systems comprising 315 billion longitudinal data points across the continuum of care.”

According to Anil Jain, M.D., chief medical officer (CMO) for Explorys, and practicing physician at the Cleveland Clinic, there is “clear synergy” among the two companies, IBM and Explorys. “Over the years we [Explorys] have become leaders when it comes to aggregating data from all the different disparate data sources that exist in a health system, and bringing it together to solve real-world problems in a very rapid manner using population health as a use case that is near and dear to most clinical systems right now,” Dr. Jain says.  “In many ways it’s very much a competitive advantage to get a handle on all that data and do actionable things.” Jain says that what attracted IBM was Explorys’ ability to help them accelerate, from a data point of view—with its 50 million lives and 360 hospitals—but also from an analytics perspective.

The Era of Cognitive Computing

Enter the Watson Health Cloud, which IBM will sell to doctors, hospitals, insurers and patients. That offering will be the centerpiece of a new dedicated, Boston-area business unit, IBM Watson Health, which now includes both Explorys and Phytel. “[IBM] is complimenting much of what we do around traditional analytics using machine learning algorithms with some of the cognitive computing and the Watson analytics that Watson Health group will be leveraging,” Jain says. “We became the content that will fuel some of the next generation analytics that Watson has become famous for.”

Indeed, Watson, the Jeopardy!-playing supercomputer, is built to mirror the human learning process through the power of cognition. According to Rob Merkel, vice president of the Watson Health unit, the creation of this group “is a signal to the market that we are making significant advancements in the market to accelerate this technology.” At the time of the April announcement, Merkel says, it was about three years since the Jeopardy! demonstration. In that time span, the Watson team went from 26 researchers to 150 to ending last year with 2,000, he notes. “At the end of the day, we’re trying to provide insights that are beyond human cognition,” Merkel says.

Merkel says that the organization has been trying to accomplish this coming from two different directions—published knowledge and data-driven insights. Within healthcare, there’s a few data points that just make it clear what’s beyond cognition, he says. “I see all of these stats on the proliferation of medical literature, from it doubling every five years to every three years, and sometimes studies even say it will just takes days for medical literature to double,” he says. “There are 700,000 research articles and 180,000 clinical trials per year.  Even if all you did was read, you wouldn’t be able to scratch the surface in many lifetimes. So that’s the knowledge approach—providing insights off those large knowledge repositories,” Merkel says.

Rob Merkel