OPEN LETTER TO IBM Watson Health: Is It Too Late for Patients to Drive This Initiative?


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I’m psyched about the launch of IBM’s Watson Health Business Unit.  Now that I spend about 50% of my time in the healthcare world working on customer co-designed health and wellness initiatives, I’m very interested in technology advances that will improve the lives of patients and their caregiver partners. However, I’m concerned that IBM is following the money and may be missing an opportunity to really innovate to create patient-friendly and patient-centered solutions.

IBM Watson Health DatagramOn Monday, April 13th, IBM announced a series of interconnected announcements laying out its growing health information ecosystem. This is a really smart place for IBM to be investing and leveraging its AI, cloud computing, security, and mobile technologies. By being a trusted custodian and aggregator of patients’ health information, and using the insights gleaned from Watson’s pattern matching and inference engines, IBM could speed up accurate diagnoses and spot patterns that contribute to breakthrough research. But I’m not convinced that patients are at the center of IBM’s thinking.

Here are the highlights (the wording is IBM’s; the emphasis is mine):

  1. Watson Health Business Unit. This new business unit will “improve the ability of doctors, researchers and insurers to innovate and improve health by surfacing new insights from the massive amount of personal health data created daily.”
  2. IBM Watson Health InfographicWatson Health Cloud. The health data and computing cycles to analyze it, will be provided by “the first-ever global information platform that allows doctors, researchers, and insurers to access and gain insights from healthcare data that will fundamentally transform the quality, efficiency and effectiveness of healthcare delivery worldwide. The HIPAA-enabled Watson Health Cloud will enable secure access to individualized insights and a more complete picture of the many factors that can affect people’s health.
  3. Partnerships with Apple, Johnson & Johnson, and Medtronic.As part of the Watson Health ecosystem, IBM has announced partnerships with these three firms. “IBM and Apple will expand their partnership to apply cloud services and analytics to HealthKit, ResearchKit and iOS devices. Johnson & Johnson will collaborate with IBM to create intelligent coaching systems centered on preoperative and postoperative patient care, including joint replacement and spinal surgery. Medtronic will team with IBM using the Watson Health Cloud insights platform to create highly-personalized care management solutions for people with diabetes.”

Here’s my concern: At first blush, IBM appears to be designing its Watson Health Unit to serve its business customers: doctors, researchers, insurers, healthcare systems. The partners in the ecosystem seem to be the ones who will be providing customized solutions that touch patients—solutions that are based on the learning and insights gleaned from analyzing the aggregated health information in the cloud.

IBM Watson Health Datagram Medical DataWe’ve entered a new phase of medical history: we’re now in the era of PARTICIPATORY MEDICINE with patient engagement. Patients are the actual end-customers for the services provided by the Watson Health Business Unit. I’d like to be reassured that there are more than a handful of patients actively engaged in the design of Watson Health’s Services. This is particularly important, bearing in mind the principle of Garbage In; Garbage Out. As any patient knows who has taken the time to gather together all their medical records from various sources (primary care, hospital encounters, diagnostic test results, specialists, therapists, pharmacies, etc.), there is no accurate source of aggregated patient information. It is scattered hither and yon. While IBM may be planning to address this aggregation issue, it can ONLY be addressed properly if each patient/provider reviews the aggregated material for accuracy. Our medical records are literally littered with errors. In most countries, patients have the legal right to access and correct their medical records, but the majority of patients don’t bother to do so, nor do they stay on top of them. Unless patients (and their families) review, sign off on, and keep abreast of their medical records, the Health Cloud will be full of errors and therefore useless.

Here’s my Rx for IBM’s new business unit:

  1. Recruit a large group of empowered patients to be active customer advisors to set priorities, review privacy, set up patient review and approval procedures for patient records, and, most of all, provide input on how to organize health-related information from the patient’s point of view. Where’s a good place to find these folks? Reach out to the Society for Participatory Medicine—you’ll find empowered, engaged patients from all over the world eager to help.
  2. Recruit physician/patient pairs to collaborate on the design and review of priority-setting for Watson Health initiatives. (You’ll find many enlightened physicians who routinely partner with their patients collaboratively in SPM.)
  3. Don’t have research/planning meetings with key business customers and stakeholders without having patients in the room. You’ll miss important subtleties and opportunities. 

In short, don’t design solutions without end-customers involved. When you’re launching a multi-billion dollar business, you need much more than a VOC check box!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Patricia Seybold
With 30 years of experience consulting to customer-centric executives in technology-aggressive businesses across many industries, Patricia Seybold is a visionary thought leader with the unique ability to spot the impact that technology enablement and customer behavior will have on business trends very early. Seybold provides customer-centric executives within Fortune 1 companies with strategic insights, technology guidance, and best practices.


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