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Next stop for IBM’s Watson supercomputer: Your local CVS pharmacy

A version of IBM Watson's computer brain in the company's Yorktown Heights, N.Y. offices. (AP Photo/IBM, Bob Goldberg)

IBM is teaming with CVS Health to harness the power of the Watson supercomputing brain to transform how the care of patients with chronic conditions is managed.

Under a deal expected to be announced Thursday, the companies will work to develop a system that would be able to provide better personalization of care, prevent the use of unneeded and costly interventions, and even predict health declines for a wide range of conditions including heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

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Troyen A. Brennan, chief medical officer for CVS Health, said in an interview that no specific product or timeline has been worked out, but that the first stage would be to jointly develop intelligent algorithms and test them to see if they helped improve patient outcomes. He said he was hopeful “realistic interventions” could be identified in one to two years.

“When you go into a cognitive computing approach like this, you’re not sure what you’re going to turn up,” he said. “We’re at the point of scientific discovery, not productization.”

Brennan said he could imagine the creation of mobile apps that would integrate information from fitness trackers and allow Watson to identify when a person’s activity level drops substantially and flag that as an indicator of something else going on. Or perhaps act as a virtual adviser for pharmacy or clinic staff that could help them identify “early signals” for when interventions may not be working and additional measures should be considered.

“Basically, if you can identify places to intervene and intervene early, you help people be healthier and avoid costly outcomes,” he said.

He added that the key to making these types of systems work will be to open lines of communication between a pharmacist, clinic staff and a patient’s physician, and that technology can help facilitate this dialogue.

The IBM-CVS partnership comes on the heels of another major coup for CVS — the announcement in June that the retail drug store chain would acquire Target’s pharmacy business for $1.9 billion. The two deals have the potential to greatly expand CVS’s role in Americans’ health care. While most of CVS’s in-store clinic customers are seen for cold symptoms, minor injuries or immunizations, the company is hoping to play a greater role in the future in patients’ chronic disease management. IBM and CVS officials declined to disclose financial terms of the deal.

Shahram Ebadollahi, chief science officer and vice president of innovation at Watson Health for IBM, said he hopes the technology developed through the partnership will help create an integrated, seamless system in which every health-care professional a patient encounters would have access to the most up-to-date information about a patient and the tools to be able to make sense of the information.

“There could be apps, wearables. There could be touch-points by pharmacists. And so on and so on to help you get back on track and help you help yourself,” Ebadollahi said.

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