It may finally be time for your smartwatch to talk to your doctor.
Plenty of people wear fitness trackers. And plenty of doctors use electronic data to help with patient care. But it's also true that these silos of data often never meet, arguably limiting how useful any of it could be to patients.
IBM is aiming to change that, saying Monday that it's striking deals with Apple, Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic to collect and use more information from personal medical devices to help with patients' clinical care. Using its Watson supercomputer -- yes, of "Jeopardy!" fame -- IBM said that it will also be launching a whole Watson Health unit.
It's the latest move by IBM to chase the business potential that comes from processing massive amounts of data. The company has also recently announced the introduction of an "Internet of Things" business unit dedicated to helping companies collect and process information from sensors embedded in everything from city streets to clothing. And Watson's applications to the health field have long been discussed as a potential business for IBM.
John Kelly, a senior vice president at IBM Research and Watson architect, said that he thinks that the health-care industry is one of the most logical places to apply the supercomputer's power. "The cost of health-care continues to grow," he said. "We need better outcomes -- we see a number of diseases that are exploding, from diabetes to cancer."
Physicians, he said, are already starting to embrace the use of digital records and data to augment care, through electronic health records as well as by monitoring data sent out by cardiac device, insulin pumps or other smart devices implanted in people's bodies. Down the line some expect smart pills, with embedded chips, to become far more commonplace.
But, of course, most consumers don't have that. What many do have, however, are fitness devices made by companies such as Fitbit, Jawbone or, soon, Apple. That information, however, often doesn't get communicated to physicians for a number of reasons -- including that there's a pretty bright line between the privacy protections we apply to clinical data and consumer fitness data.
Questions on how to handle the privacy of medical data, perhaps among the most sensitive and certainly personal information devices collect, have been heavy on the minds of those in the medical and technology sectors for years. Privacy advocates have repeatedly raised concerns that the collection of health and fitness data could lead to discrimination, data mining and inappropriate advertising. It's also among the most highly targeted for hackers.
To navigate those problems, IBM is offering ways to strip personal information from data collected by consumer devices such as smartbands and smartwatches and plug that information into Watson to look for aggregate trends. But the health cloud will also be able to de-anonymize information when needed for physicians who want to see how to apply a patient's specific health information to their care regimen.
"It's a switch we can throw," Kelly said, to provide private connections between those silos of data when needed.
The partnership with Apple is particularly interesting, given the company's marked interest in exploring health and fitness, by way of its HealthKit and ResearchKit platforms. Those programs allow developers and physicians to collect health information of Apple users -- with permission -- by way of motion and other sensors within its mobile devices.
Kelly said he believes we've hit an "inflection point" at which enough prominent companies are willing to come together to craft smart solutions on how to deal with health data, as well as the knowledge of how to analyze and protect it. That, he said, will become more important as the number of health devices -- and the amount of information they collect -- continue to grow.
"A whole number of technologies now are coming together," he said. "And, Lord knows, the industry needs it."