IBM’s, Omron’s, and Nokia’s Visions for Digital Health Are Compelling, but Challenges Remain Before These Promises Can Become a Reality

What They Said

Last week, we spoke at the 2016 Advanced Semiconductor Technology Conference in Singapore. The conference focused on semiconductor and information technologies and how they can impact the digitalization of two industries: manufacturing and health care. While discussions around advancements in nature-inspired structural materials and semiconductor technology were noteworthy, the forward-looking visions for digital health shared by three large players – IBM, Omron, and Nokia – took center stage.

  • IBM envisions a future where doctors make better, more personal clinical decisions. The company’s Farhana Nakhooda, Director of Healthcare & Social Service for IBM Asia Pacific, highlighted Watson Health, a cognitive analytics platform that can read, decipher, and interpret medical publications and images (client registration required). So far, Watson Health’s primary focus has been on the field of oncology, where new academic publications come out every week, and where it is not plausible for a single doctor to keep up to date with newly generated studies and digest the vast amounts of information. The vision for IBM’s Watson system is not to replace doctors, but rather become a clinical decision support tool that helps providers make more educated and personalized decisions on treatment or disease management plans for patients.
  • Omron envisions a future with zero heart attacks and stroke events. The company’s Takayuki Endo, Manager of Corporate Planning, presented Omron’s “Zero Event” vision, a future where there are no heart attack or stroke events. Omron plans to deliver on this vision by introducing a continuous blood pressure monitoring system (traditionally, blood pressure measurements are taken periodically) and using collected information to carry out risk analysis and prediction of harmful events. The company has already completed a prototype for a device that is capable of continuously monitoring blood pressure, and it launched a clinical research project in March of 2016.
  • Nokia envisions a future of highly-connected megacities. The company’s Danial Mausoof, Senior Director and Head of Strategic Marketing & Corporate Affairs, emphasized that Nokia is no longer in the business of manufacturing cell phones. Rather, the company sees its future in developing and supporting networks of connected cities which, amongst other benefits, could allow for more holistic medical care by monitoring and managing medical conditions while individuals are on-the-go. Connected cities could, for example, gather information on activity levels, diets, and vital signs. Mausoof said that while Nokia’s acquisition of Withings symbolized the company’s foray into the health space (client registration required for both), Nokia sees this acquisition just as the beginning, and as an opportunity to test the water and better understand what its play in the health space should shape to.

What We Think

All digital health visions presented at ASTC are compelling. With that, executing on broad and long-ranging visions is nontrivial, and IBM, Omron, and Nokia will each need to successfully navigate through a unique set of challenges before their visions can become a reality. Along the way, each player will also need to decide whether it can make it on its own or whether it will seek external resources and expertise to bridge existing gaps.

  • It will take considerable time before Watson Health can become an omniscient clinical decision support tool. The need to manually train the Watson cognitive system before it can act as a clinical decision support tool presents a bottleneck. While IBM has made considerable progress with making Watson become a useful decision support tool for oncology, the training effort took two years and required input from thousands of doctors. Therefore, Watson’s potential as a powerful decision support tool for various types of patients and medical conditions will only be realized if IBM can accelerate the system training process. To do so, IBM may consider partnering with other developers of natural language processing (NLP) and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms that extract relevant insights from medical literature, for example ResultCare (client registration required). Alternatively, the company may look to carefully choose the next medical disciplines it chooses to train Watson on, as training the system on a discipline that overlaps with what Watson already knows may take less time and fewer resources (client registration required).
  • Omron is only addressing half the Zero Event equation. By offering continuous blood pressure monitoring and predictive analytics, Omron is taking a reactive approach to manage heart attacks and strokes. With that, to bring about a Zero Event future, the company should also look to take a preventative approach, where the risk of individuals suffering these conditions is not only predicted, but also eliminated. The paradigm shift of health care from reactive to preventative is widely accepted as both clinically and economically beneficial, and as consumers and doctors alike buy into this vision in upcoming years, behavior augmentation technologies that help individuals make better lifestyle choices to reduce the risk of disease will see growing importance and adoption. When asked how it plans to address the preventative aspect of the Zero Event vision, Omron noted that it will secure appropriate partnerships. The company may select to partner with developers of behavior augmentation technologies that help consumers improve their eating habits (see DietSensor), exercise habits, or medication adherence (client registration required for both).
  • Nokia’s connected sensors network will not be valuable on its own as digital health matures. Nokia’s mission to monitor and aggregate numerous data streams will make the company an important player in the infant stages of digital health where monitoring and diagnostics are front of mind. By connecting megacities and collecting information that on the surface is not health-related but in reality is medically relevant, Nokia may be able to offer a more valuable solution than existing data aggregation platforms that solely gather information from in-home clinical devices, wearables, and mobile applications are able to (client registration required). With that, connecting sensors and aggregating data is only the first step, and the long-term value to a network like Nokia’s will come from the ability to generate insights and guidance required to improve disease management. The absence of a data analytics layer from Nokia’s solution may, therefore, inhibit the company’s growth as digital health matures. To address this, Nokia could either develop analytics expertise in-house or it may partner with developers of personalized physiology analytics platforms like PhysIQ (client registration required).

While IBM’s, Omron’s, and Nokia’s visions draw a compelling future for health care, the considerable challenges these companies will need to overcome highlight that having a plan to get from vision to reality is not less important than having the vision itself. Today, dependency on manual inputs, heavy focus on reactive medicine, and absence of meaningful insight generation could prevent players in the digital health space from creating solutions whose value will be long-lasting. While the challenges that digital health companies will face may change as the field matures and as more complex issues surface, the ability to successfully navigate and design for both near-term goals and long-term visions will ultimately separate winners from losers.

By: Noa Ghersin