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IBM Hopes CVS-Watson Partnership Leads to More Connections in Cloud

With a store in “almost every neighborhood” in the country, CVS pharmacies seemed the perfect match for Watson Health, IBM’s big-data-crunching artificial intelligence system, officials from both companies said after the new partnership was announced last week.

“People spend more time in their local CVS than they do in their doctor’s office so this seemed like a logical place to engage with a large number of people,” said Kathy McGroddy-Goetz, vice president of Watson Health at IBM.

The two companies are collaborating with a goal of helping millions of Americans manage chronic health conditions using the IBM supercomputer’s analytic and learning power. In addition to those already diagnosed with chronic conditions, officials from the two companies hope the information collected in the Watson Health Cloud can eventually identify and warn people at risk for developing chronic diseases.

“We realized health care and the whole spectrum of health and wellness was becoming a big data and analytics problem and we figured this was a good start. The partnership with CVS fulfills all of the four Vs of big data — volume, variety, veracity and velocity,” McGroddy-Goetz said.

With 7,800 retail drug stores and almost 1,000 walk-in medical clinics — called MinuteClinics — CVS serves as pharmacy benefit manager for more than 70 million Americans.

In California, CVS officials hope Watson Health’s clout in the cloud will attract new customers to the 55 MinuteClinics in the state.

Christine Cramer, senior director of public relations for CVS, said specific goals have yet to be set.

“As the partnership with IBM is just beginning, we’re currently in scientific discovery, so the scope is intentionally broad to give us the flexibility and ability to develop the best solution that can make the most impact in advancing patient care for those with chronic conditions,” Cramer said.

“Once developed, the CVS Health-IBM Watson Health solution could be applied by a variety of practitioners — pharmacists, nurse practitioners at MinuteClinics or connected health care providers — and can also help CVS/Caremark pharmacy benefit management clients improve member health and cost,” Cramer said.

Multiple Partnerships Envisioned in Cloud

“We think Watson could provide a great opportunity to develop an ecosystem that could include multiple participants — including government agencies,” McGroddy-Goetz said.

“We have this vision that people and organizations are going to come to our platform and use the opportunity to collaborate with each other,” McGroddy-Goetz said. “The big data and analytic capabilities of Watson have great potential in health care. We’re just getting started,” McGroddy-Goetz said.

IBM, which has been crunching health care data with the Department of Veterans Affairs since the pre-Watson years, could theoretically provide a platform for government health agencies such as Medicare and Medicaid, McGroddy-Goetz said.

“Democratization and access are the main goals in IBM’s strategy around data cloud use and engagement,” McGroddy-Goetz said. “That could very well include government agencies.”

Earlier this year, IBM announced several partnerships and affiliations for Watson Health. In April at the annual Health Information and Management Systems Society conference, IBM unveiled Watson Health Cloud, billing it as the first global information platform that allowed physicians, researchers and insurers access to health care data. IBM also announced partnerships with Apple, Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic.

Also this spring, IBM announced partnerships with 14 health systems and cancer centers to use Watson for cancer research.

In May, IBM announced Watson would use Epic’s electronic health record system, the same system used by CVS and MinuteClinics.

Chronic Conditions Targeted First

Watson and CVS are targeting chronic conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, obesity and hypertension.

Watson employs cognitive computing and is expected to “learn” as it progresses through its new health care duties, refining and changing course as the partnership develops.

The partnership initially will focus on three main goals:

  • Identifying individuals at risk for declining health who may benefit from proactive, customized engagement programs;
  • Encouraging patients to adopt safe and healthy behaviors, including adherence to prescribed medicines and healthy lifestyle regimens; and
  • Suggesting appropriate use of cost-effective primary care and out-patient providers.

CVS officials said they plan to develop new tracking systems including mobile applications to integrate information from fitness trackers.

‘Putting Power in Individuals’ Hands’

Choreographing Watson’s first major foray into patient engagement around chronic disease makes sense because patients with chronic ailments have so much to gain by becoming actively involved in their care, IBM and CVS officials said.

“We started thinking about people with chronic disease because putting the power of health and wellness into the individual’s hands can be a powerful thing for people dealing with chronic problems,” McGroddy-Goetz said. “One of our goals is to engage with them in a way that will encourage them to take a more active role in their care. That could mean incorporating mobile devices, it could mean electronic reminders, it could mean things we haven’t come to yet,” McGroddy-Goetz said.

“Partnering with someone like CVS made sense to us because it allows us to do all those things on a large scale,” she added.

How the partnership will affect the two publicly traded for-profit companies in the long term is not clear.

Shares in CVS, the second-largest chain of drug stores in the U.S. following Walgreens, were trading near all-time highs this week around $112 per share, up about 17% in 2015 and up 48% over the past 12 months.

IBM shares were trading at less than $160 earlier this week, the lowest they’ve been since March.

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