CVS, Watson confront chronic disease

Partnership joins IBM's brainy computer with CVS' giant pharmacy network
By Bernie Monegain
07:40 AM
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CVS photo by AlbertHerring

CVS Health, with 7,800 pharmacies and more than 1,000 walk-in medical clinics across the country, and Watson, IBM's cognitive computing platform, are joining forces to take on chronic diseases. The plan? Eradicate conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and obesity before they even take hold.

The partnership joins Watson's cognitive computing capability with CVS' vast trove of healthcare data that includes medical health records, pharmacy and medical claims information. Of course, CVS customers and their care providers are part of the equation.

The CVS-Watson partnership will enable healthcare practitioners, including those across the CVS Health enterprise, to use Watson to advance care management beyond programs and services typically available today, according to IBM executives. Much of the power has to do with Watson’s ability to read and understand vast amounts of information, and to continuously learn.

[See also: CVS connects with providers via Epic and MinuteClinic taps Epic for EMR.]

As a result healthcare practitioners quickly and easily gain insights from an unprecedented mix of health information sources.

The chronic diseases that the CVS-IBM partnership is tackling are the leading cause of death and disability in the U.S. and represent 86 percent of the nation’s $2.9 trillion in annual health spending.

"The CDC reports that one in three Americans will be diabetic by 2050 if we don't address or arrest the current situation," Stephen Gold, vice president, Watson Health, told Healthcare IT News. "Now that is an alarming number."

However, as Gold sees it, it's an opportunity to do something about it.

"What we give out today is greater collective knowledge," he said. "There's value in being able to provide a much more informed opinion."

In his view, the way to go is to apply analytics – to look predictably at who's at risk and use the information to alter the outcome. If a patient realized that adding a few green leafy vegetables to his diet, cutting back on smoking and add just a tad of exercise would give him a 94 percent chance of preventing a chronic disease, he might do it.

"That would motivate me to change behavior," Gold said. "That's exactly what we'll be able to do with CVS by providing that insight. Think about the reach that we've just achieved. All of a sudden our outreach is extended to thousands."

The CVS-IBM offering will be made available to insurers and other entities serving the employer and health plan market.

[See also: With 2 acquisitions, IBM builds out Watson Health and Epic, Watson at work on interoperability.]

Specifically, it will focus on:

  • Helping to predict 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
  • Suggesting appropriate use of cost-effective primary care and outpatient providers.

The partnership also brings together IBM’s Watson Health Cloud and cognitive computing capabilities with both companies’ expertise in predictive analytics and patient engagement. CVS Health also brings strong insights into medication adherence and pharmacy care.

"CVS Health and IBM are both committed to improving health and finding ways to engage individuals in their well-being through the use of information and technology,” said Troyen A. Brennan, MD, executive vice president and chief medical officer for CVS Health, in a statement announcing the deal with IBM Watson. “This partnership will enable us to leverage advanced technologies and key health information to develop a tool that can be applied by a variety of health care providers such as pharmacists, nurse practitioners at MinuteClinics or connected health care providers, and that can help our pharmacy benefit management clients improve member health and manage cost.”

“The capabilities of the IBM Watson Health Cloud, when coupled with CVS Health’s insights into medication utilization and patient behavior, could prove transformative for the industry,” added Mike Rhodin, senior vice president, IBM Watson. “Improving care for people with chronic conditions supports IBM’s commitment to make big plays that advance the health and wellbeing of the global community. Through the recent acquisitions of Phytel, Explorys, and Curam we also bring extraordinary capabilities in patient engagement and population health, enabling us to deliver a powerful solution that supports individuals wherever they are, whenever they need it.”

Gold expects the pilot to begin in early 2016, with a full rollout planned later in the year. He's gratified, he said, that the initiative is one that can make a difference from the get-go.