IBM launches massive health data research project

By Diana Manos
09:56 AM

IBM has announced it has launched a multi-year research project to connect and analyze enormous collections of data from a wide variety of sources to find ways to improve health. The project will initially focus on childhood obesity.

The IBM Research project will combine and analyze massive data sources that have never before been integrated to simulate the cause-and-effect relationships between agriculture, transportation, city planning, eating and exercise habits, socio-economic status, family life, and more, researchers said.

"Our ability to advance the health of our population is currently limited to maintaining healthy life choices and working within a health care delivery system because it's been impossible to understand and to quantify precisely how each factor in our environment plays a role," said Martin Sepulveda, MD, IBM fellow and vice president of Integrated Health Services at IBM.

"We hope the results of this project will help individuals, governments and businesses actually understand exactly how the actions they take affect health - and then work together to make better decisions that make it easy to be healthy," Sepulveda said.

According to Sepulveda, in the U.S., chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity account for 70 percent of all deaths and more than $1.5 trillion of healthcare spending annually. Factors far beyond the traditional healthcare system – including finance, urban planning, individual behavior, disease transmission, clinical research, media and many others – influence human health. Understanding these interconnected factors is critical to developing effective programs that enhance health and well-being.

"Managing health, be it for a single patient or an entire population, is an overwhelmingly complex challenge," said Gary An, assistant professor of trauma and critical care at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "Despite the critical influence of cultural, socio-economic and environmental factors, the doctor-patient relationship remains the mainstay of delivering healthcare: all these complex issues need to meld into a single thread of conversation as I talk to my patient. Therefore, any initiative – like the one IBM is launching – that can help bring together these disparate and often potentially contradictory forces and aid me in tailoring how I can help my patient improve his or her health, is both greatly needed, and greatly welcomed."

According to IBM, the research project could help pinpoint incentives governments and businesses might offer or what types of investments might be needed and how to prioritize them.

"In many cases, the data and models exist. They just need to be put together in a consumable way that shows the wider connections and potential actions that can enhance individual and community health," said Paul Maglio, an IBM researcher. "This is a huge challenge from both a social and technological perspective, but we believe our expertise in service science, computational modeling, math and large-scale analytics can help answer these important questions."

IBM researchers said they will partner with public policy and food experts, medical clinicians, economists, simulation experts, industry leaders, universities and others in this collaborative endeavor.

Last week IBM gathered many of the leading thinkers from these areas at the 10th annual Almaden Institute in San Jose, California to discuss the fundamental issues of the research project.