From The Editor | July 25, 2014

IBM, Apple & Epic: Health IT's Dream Team?

ken congdon

By Ken Congdon

Not surprisingly, Wall Street has been buzzing about the IBM/Apple alliance announced on July 15. The deal, which matches IBM’s enterprise-ready software with Apple’s hardware and iOS, addresses some insightful gap analyses by the long-time business rivals. Investor chatter has focused on how the partnership will help Apple penetrate the evasive enterprise market (boosting listing iPad sales as a result), while bolstering IBM’s SME and mobile application offerings.

In Healthcare, It’s All About Mobility

The alliance has some particularly promising implications for healthcare. Unlike other industries, Apple already has a strong foothold in healthcare – with 68% of providers using iPhones and 59% using iPads for professional purposes according to a survey by Black Book Rankings. However, these devices are currently widely underutilized and poorly integrated with core health information systems. The Apple/IBM partnership has tremendous potential to make the business of healthcare much more mobile.

For example, most healthcare apps written for the iPad and iPhone to date have essentially been ports to desktop applications that haven’t taken full advantage of mobile platforms.  IBM plans to change that by building a suite of applications specifically for iOS using its MobileFirst portfolio. This includes optimizing the mobile capabilities of the other major player in this equation — Epic Systems. Both Apple and IBM had an existing relationship with Epic prior to July 15, but according to Dan Pelino, IBM’s general manager of the public sector, efforts with Epic have accelerated and been more coordinated since the alliance.

The goal is to create a true mobile link between providers and patients by combining the strengths of all three companies. This means a seamless, two-way exchange of health data. For example, the millions of patients whose medical history is currently managed by an Epic EHR will be able to access and interact with their health data via their mobile device using the Epic MyChart app. At the same time, IBM plans to build a suite of complementary apps that will allow data to be collected from a variety of medical and fitness devices (from glucose meters to Fitbits) and uploaded not only to a patient’s iPhone or iPad, but ultimately to their EMR as well. Once this data is in Epic, providers can manipulate it in a number of ways to improve patient outcomes.   

“The true beneficiary of this partnership from a healthcare perspective is the patient,” says Pelino. “By connecting providers and patients with mobile technology, the challenge of healthcare is no longer left at the door of the ER. Through our alliance with Apple and Epic, the potential exists that no one will ever be discharged from care. Instead, providers can continually monitor patients to ensure treatment plans are adhered to. This is a tremendous opportunity to influence and change patient behavior.”  

The IBM/Apple alliance also has the potential to address many of the data security issues that have long stood in the way of the expansion of mobile healthcare use and development. IBM has the largest security practice in the world, and it’s partnership with Apple should provide healthcare organizations with the assurance that their iOS applications will be secure and in compliance with HIPAA.

Dr. Watson Meet Dr. Siri

Another tantalizing prospect of the IBM/Apple deal that has the healthcare industry drooling is the possibility that elements of IBM’s cognitive supercomputer Watson could be leveraged by Apple and even coupled with Apple’s voice-driven knowledge navigator, Siri. IBM has encouraged technology companies, including health IT vendors, to tap into Watson’s machine-learning capabilities for use in their programs and apps. With the continued rise of iPad use in clinical settings and the introduction of Apple’s HealthKit, the opportunities for health providers to leverage Watson’s technology at the point of care are intriguing to say the least. Imagine a physician being able to ask Siri to bring up a patient record on their iPad or Siri working in conjunction with Watson to quickly comb through case histories and directories worldwide for diagnosis and clinical decision support.

Watson could also be used in conjunction with Apple apps and devices to help providers influence patient behavior on a more personalized level. As Stephanie Baum points out in a recent MedCity News articleThrough Watson, an app can use personal information, location, and time to make more practical recommendations. It can also use that additional context to develop more relevant options, a bit like a personalized coach. It could help users (patients) manage their priorities. 

Of course, all of these Watson/Siri applications are pure speculation at this point, but it’s fun to think about all the same.