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Apple and IBM’s Plan to Make Smarter Health-Tracking iPhone Apps

Apple helped IBM create a service that can analyze medical data collected by iPhone apps, and could deliver personalized health advice.
April 22, 2015

Apple’s vision for tracking your health via an iPhone is expanding.

Some hospitals and electronic medical records companies have already begun using an Apple software platform called HealthKit to add extra detail to patient files. For example, patients can opt to automatically share readings from a home blood glucose monitor with their provider using the software. Apple and IBM are now working together to help health-care providers make sense of that data, and to do things like automatically offer advice to patients.

IBM has created a new online service, called Watson Health Cloud, designed to analyze data funneled through HealthKit. It is intended to help companies and researchers find medically useful patterns in data collected via Apple’s platform, and to build tools that offer personalized medical advice based on an individual’s HealthKit data.

One way that apps built on IBM’s new service could do that is by comparing data from an individual’s phone against piles of anonymized records from previous patients, says Steve Gold, a vice president in IBM’s Watson Group. “An app could tell me what actions I can take, personalized to my age, past conditions, and activity,” says Gold. “For example, ‘We know that people like you need to make sure to take a baby aspirin a day or eat less red meat.’ ”

Last week, IBM announced it had acquired a company, Explorys, which has a database of 50 million medical records that it uses to search for revealing patterns in patient care (see “The Health-Care Company IBM Needed”). IBM could also help health-care providers and researchers combine HealthKit data with information from genetic tests, says Gold. HealthKit does not yet handle genetic data, but IBM’s platform does. The company is also an investor in the genetic-testing company Pathway Genomics.

No Apple executive was available for comment in time for publication.

Apple’s HealthKit was announced in June 2014, and rolled out to iPhones with an update to Apple’s mobile operating system in September of that year. It creates a kind of information vault on a person’s iPhone that collates health data from a person’s Apple gadgets as well as other apps and medical devices, such as blood glucose monitors (see “Why Apple Wants to Help You Track Your Health”).

 IBM plans to use its platform and HealthKit to offer apps for companies wishing to provide their employees with health advice. This is part of a deal IBM struck last year to sell Apple’s hardware, software, and compatible apps to businesses.

The collaboration with IBM is Apple’s first publicly announced HealthKit partnership focused purely on analyzing HealthKit data. The Watson Health Cloud is also designed to be compatible with ResearchKit, an Apple software platform that lets medical researchers collect data via iPhones.

Compatibility with HealthKit and ResearchKit is a major selling point for the Watson Health Cloud, but it is designed to work with any source of data. Johnson & Johnson is using IBM’s service to build an app that acts as a personal coach to help people prepare for and recover from joint replacement surgery, for example, by tracking how many steps they take each day.

Marina Sirota, an assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco, Institute for Computational Health, agrees that combining outside data sources with HealthKit, and providing automated analysis, could be very powerful. For example, it might uncover subgroups among people with the same condition who respond differently to the same treatment. “This data will allow us to understand disease better,” says Sirota.

However, researchers and doctors are only just starting to explore the usefulness of this kind of data, says Sirota. “We’ll have to start getting apps collecting data in different ways, and then start the research and analysis, which will inform development of new apps that could help patients,” she says.

The Watson Health Cloud is the main product of a new, 2,000-person business unit at IBM called Watson Health. Although named for the Watson question-answering software developed to compete on the game show Jeopardy!, not all of the unit’s offerings are based on that technology.

Watson beat human champions in 2011 using software that can digest human-readable text such as Wikipedia entries, and understand questions posed in natural language. Many applications of the Watson Health Cloud, including working on data from Apple’s HealthKit, will involve working with numerical data, using more conventional data analysis techniques.

But Gold says the cloud platform will also be able to draw on Watson’s language-understanding capabilities. That could help match up numerical data from HealthKit with information from doctor’s notes, he says.

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