Apple and IBM may just have changed the future of personalised medicine

    14 April 2015

    As the FT reports, Apple and IBM have got into bed together. The deal they’ve struck has major implications for the growing number of people using wearable tech (and indeed mobile phones) to monitor their health.

    Here are the details. IBM has entered into partnership with Apple and other manufacturers of medical devices to make health data from wearable tech available to doctors and insurers. One outcome will be personalised treatments for diabetics. But that’s only part of the picture.

    This is how it will work. If you’re self-monitoring your heart rate, calories and cholesterol levels – as more and more of us are – you will now be able to use an IBM app to store it in a cloud. To quote the FT:

    The agreement is the latest instance of deeper ties between the healthcare and technology sectors, in anticipation of an explosion in the amount of medical data that people collect using their smartphones or ‘wearables’ like the Fitbit or Apple Watch.

    John Kelly, senior vice-president at IBM, described Apple’s HealthKit and ResearchKit platforms as ‘really unique’ but said there was currently ‘no systematic way of pulling the data together and sending it’ to physicians or clinical researchers. ‘We are . . . providing a huge cloud and a secure database as a backstop,’ he said.

    IBM’s partnership with Apple is not exclusive, but the group said few companies could offer the iPhone maker the same storage and security capabilities. ‘[Apple’s] sense is that this is very sensitive data. They feel really good about our reputation for operating secure data centres,’ said Mr Kelly.

    IBM said it would also market a set of analytical tools to physicians, researchers and insurers, enabling them to collate the data from Apple’s devices with patients’ electronic medical records so they could spot patterns to support clinical trials or help bring down rising healthcare costs.

    The tools will be built using an IBM ‘cognitive computing system’ called Watson, which can analyse and crunch vast quantities of medical data.

    This really is a big deal, because although healthcare and tech companies have been gathering data for decades, they’ve been doing so separately. Their research and development departments have access to their own treasure troves of information. What’s really exciting is the fusion between the two which has been made possible by recent developments in consumer tech.

    The IBM/Apple agreement is some of the first compelling evidence that the relationship is deepening between these vital, mutually beneficial sectors. The results could spark a fundamental change in the way we think about our health – and (perhaps a bit scarily) our own responsibility to look after it.

    Self-diagnosis is a minefield for both patients and GPs, as this Guardian article explains. But that’s beginning to change. A decade ago, doctors rolled their eyes when patients began to arrive in their surgeries with a diagnosis ‘off the internet’. But medical professionals are now beginning to appreciate the opportunities that information technology creates. They are seeing tangible benefits. Dr Effrossyni Gkrania-Klotsas, an infectious diseases consultant at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, waxed lyrical about a medical fact-checking app in the Telegraph:

    One of my favourite things about using the UpToDate app is the access to Lexicomp, the Wolters Kluwer Health drug database. I had a patient the other day who was reporting a very unusual symptom that he was claiming was a side effect of an HIV medication he was on. I looked it up in our local BNF (British National Formulary) system and the information was very generic. I then looked it up on UpToDate and was able to show that in fact, he was right. UpToDate noted that 1-6% of patients experienced headaches while using this medication. With UpToDate, getting an answer was really quick and I was able to show the patient.

    Online health diagnostic tools have become more accurate, to the extent that the NHS is beginning to dip its toes into the water, offering its own online tests. These are often dismissed as little more than frustrating toys, and some of them are just that. But others are accurate, and will have inevitably saved a life or two by now.

    This is just the beginning of a process of (partial) role-reversal between doctors and patients, and there are bound to be problems along the way. For those who are willing to monitor and improve health using new technology, the relationship they have with their GP should become more transparent – so long as doctors are willing to make the adjustment. But that will require tech-savvy GPs, of which there aren’t nearly enough, and better health service IT.

    And there’s another, even bigger, problem. We may well have phones in our pockets which can photograph lesions or double as a heart monitor, but their usefulness is being restricted by twitchy lawmakers. If consumer are going to enjoy the full benefits of accelerating technological change, regulators will need to adopt a more laissez-faire approach. A shift in thinking could save the NHS billions and put control over our own health in our pockets, where it rightly belongs.

    The NHS doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to computer technology. But Apple does. That’s why we should pay close attention to the deal announced this week.