Will Watson Soon Become Our New Personal Health Advisor?

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I’m wondering. Will Watson-supported technology replace my wife as the voice in my ear that consistently scolds me about my blood pressure, cholesterol level, and exercise?

Last week IBM announced that its “Watson” fund will be investing in Welltok, a healthcare application that helps businesses incentivize employees to participate in wellness plans. Welltok is a Denver based start-up that since 2009 is a self-described social health management pioneer that uses techniques such as social gaming technology to drive consumers to take better control of their health, and uses analytics to help insurance payers and companies measure the effectiveness of their wellness efforts.

It’s all part of the commitment IBM made to invest a billion dollars, a hundred million of it in start-up ventures, to put Watson’s high-powered “thinking” technology to work.

Interesting fact: Watson was named after Thomas J. Watson, the CEO of IBM from 1914 to 1956, whose motto “Think” became an IBM catchphrase and led to the first notebooks being called “Think pads”. It brings it full circle that the “thinking” computer Watson is named after the man that coined the phrase.

Good software leverages computing capabilities to solve problems. So this looks to be a smart use of the Watson potential when you look at how poorly most consumers use their insurance plans. I saw an article in USA Today about a study of new Medicaid patients in Oregon. The article quotes researchers as saying that the patients only used their new insurance for medical emergencies – not to schedule preventive health screenings or set appointments to manage chronic illnesses.

The fact that IBM is investing in a healthcare application of the Watson technology is not surprising. It’s one of the main areas IBM has targeted as ripe for the kind of predictive analytics Watson can impact. With the Affordable Care Act (ACA) driving new healthcare payment models that rely on using data to reduce variations in how physicians treat an episode of care, Watson fits right in. The Watson technology has already been used, for example, as a sort of intelligent Super Google that consumed huge amounts of data about cancer conditions, treatments, and patients to provide physicians with a resource to rapidly research treatment options.

The efficiency part of using Watson to better inform and incentivize workers to use their insurance plans for more than emergency care and to incentivize fitness appeals to me.

  • Improving wellness can reduce sick days
  • Regular check ups can spot illness early and save lives and reduce more costly treatment down the road. Hopefully, this would reduce insurance premiums.
  • Companies could look at the analytics and know whether the investment they are making in wellness is paying off or whether they need to try a new strategy.

But there is a “Big Brother” part of this that has me concerned about giving up additional personal information so readily to employers.

  • What are the rules for using this data?
  • Who internally has access to it? Can it be used against employees?
  • How is this data secured against outside breaches?

So, I’m wondering. Will the new Watson supported application be the voice in my ear that helps me manage my health or will it be a way for employers and big government to gather more personal data about me? What do you think? I’m interested in hearing your opinions.


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