How Fitbit and IBM Watson are transferring the power of healthcare data from one hand to another

Fitbit and IBM Watson are rapidly democratizing the access to personal health data as well as access to complex computational capability, and placing it, literally, in people’s hands. They are effectively transferring power from the hands of scientists and academics to ordinary citizens.

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The last week saw a couple of very important announcements in the world of healthcare.

Wearable device pioneer Fitbit announced an IPO that could raise over $100 million. Fitbit is at the leading edge of a consumer and connected health revolution that promotes the notion of a “quantified self” through a wearable device that works as a fitness tracker.

Separately, IBM Watson Healthcare announced a major push into the healthcare analytics space through strategic partnerships with Mayo Clinic, one of the nation’s leading hospitals and medical research institutions, and Epic, a provider of Electronic Health Record (EHR) systems with access to vast amounts of patient medical records. IBM has been aggressively pursuing access to patient data to feed the Watson engine, more recently through the acquisition of Explorys and Phytel. These acquisitions and partnerships deepen IBM’s commitment to extend Watson’s cognitive computing power to advance the quality of healthcare, specifically in areas such as cancer prediction and treatment.

A separate, interesting story, discussed how Larry Smarr, hailed as the world’s most self-measured man, has tracked his own personal health data for over 15 years.  The story discussed not just how the digital health revolution will be driven by wearable devices, such as Fitbit, but also cautioned about the ramifications for patient health and privacy.

Much is being written about the Fitbit story, especially as it relates to their competitive position in a market that is witnessing the entry of giants such as Apple with the Apple Watch, and what that might do to Fitbit’s market leadership today. However, the more interesting story is likely to be one of what can potentially be done with the large volumes of data being thrown off by wearable devices. Consumer health data, from these devices, form part of the Internet of Things (IoT) phenomenon that will change the way we manage our health in future.

IBM’s Watson platform, at the other end of the spectrum, has the capability to analyze vast amounts of data on a cloud-based platform that puts the power of the analysis in the hands of physicians, researchers, insurance actuaries, and other non-technical users. Using advanced technical capabilities such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning algorithms, the system responds to clinical queries in natural language and comes up with responses based on medical evidence that is gathered and constantly analyzed in the system.

All this, in turn, unleashes the power of the data and the analysis by making it available to a much larger section of our society (at least one insurer has offered monetary incentives for access to Fitbit data). It is conceivable that the power of IBM Watson could soon be packed into a wearable device such as a Fitbit or an Apple Watch. Individuals may be able to gain monetary as well as health benefits directly as a result.

Some may argue that this is a rose-tinted view of our immediate future. Others point to the inherent dangers of a society whose future is being shaped rapidly by computers driven by artificial intelligence, a view that has been voiced by Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk. However, there are practical, near-term concerns and issues that are more pertinent arguments to consider.

Firstly, healthcare improvement through access to data has to be balanced with privacy concerns. There is also an ongoing debate about who really owns healthcare data, with state law being silent in many cases.

Secondly, healthcare data security has to be significantly enhanced, given the rampant incidents of data breaches that we have witnessed recently at large enterprises such as Anthem and Premera. Criminal attacks now target healthcare as one of the most lucrative sectors in the black market for personal data.

Finally, the exchange of healthcare data between various parties involved has to be seamless across the system. This last challenge seems to be the biggest bottleneck impacting adoption rates in healthcare analytics. The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) is currently addressing the issue with vendors of EHR systems.

Fitbit and IBM Watson are rapidly democratizing the access to personal health data as well as the access to complex computational capability, and placing it, literally, in people’s hands. They are effectively transferring the power of healthcare data from the hands of scientists and medical practitioners to ordinary citizens.

For this reason alone, healthcare is likely to leapfrog other sectors in the widespread adoption of cognitive computing and analytics in day to day life.

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