“We’re going to really change healthcare on the face of the planet.”

IBM’s Watson Health was announced with a (small) bang on April 13th, 2015. Despite the magnitude of Watson Group Senior Vice President Mike Rhodin’s closing statement in their release video, Watson Health isn’t exactly a game-changing moment. Rather, it’s the logical next step in trends around big data, cloud computing and wearable health devices.

About a year ago we wrote a post about IBM Watson and its implications for the future of health care. Then, like now, Watson had already been working in health care for a few years. In January 2015 Watson was being used for cancer research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Baylor College of medicine, and a new partnership with the New York Genome Center was exploring Watson’s power in genomics. Since 2013 medical experts have had access to interfaces like WatsonPaths and Watson EMR, which harness Watson’s cognitive capabilities to inform their medical practice. So what’s new about Watson under Watson Health?

Watson Health is still a suite of computing capabilities that work together to derive answers from large, unstructured sets of data in the English language. Just like Watson, it’s primary contribution in health care is to narrow down information for physicians and researchers using high-speed analysis of a given body of literature or set of medical records. What’s new with Watson Health is that these capabilities now exist in the Watson Health Cloud and are available on an open platform for researchers, doctors, patients, pharmaceutical companies and insurers.

As their new “how it works” video explains, the Watson Health Cloud brings together vast amounts of medical data into one centralized “thinking hub” on the cloud, combining traditional analytics with Watson’s ability to learn and refine its analysis over time. To accomplish this, IBM acquired population health company Phytel and cloud-based data analytics company Explorys, while entering into new partnerships with Apple, Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic to help optimize consumer and medical devices for data collection, analysis and feedback. The new operation will be headquartered in Boston.

In addition to changes in company structure, health applications of Watson have continued to develop. For example, in November Boston Children’s Hospital announced that its Manton Center for Orphan Disease Research would use Watson in their study of steroid-resistant neophrotic syndrome (SRNS), a rare genetic form of kidney disease. The project plans to expand to other rare pediatric diseases, of which there are about 7,000 identified, affecting one in 10 Americans. While the potential impact is huge, the application of Watson is the same as before: use cognitive technology that can assimilate different types and sources of data to help doctors solve medical mysteries.

What is new is Watson Health’s explicit emphasis on harnessing the power behind an explosion of user-generated health data from devices like fitness bands, in addition to medical records, clinical trials, and research. Medical data doubles every three years and Watson Health is riding the front of this wave. By harnessing the insights of Watson Health’s ecosystem, users also share their medical information – contributing to the cloud of data that IBM promises to feed straight back to your doctor, making a healthier world and fueling the next generation of health care.

This emphasis on user-generated health data flies in the face of skeptics, and it remains to be seen how transformative Watson Health really is. What we can say is that changes over the past year – with the emergence of Watson Health Cloud and its new analytics platform – show that IBM is positioning Watson at the leading edge of trends in health care.

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