Digital health news update: IBM Watson’s struggles, Facebook and clinical trials, and more

September 12, 2017

 

Author: Matthew Arnold, Principal Analyst

 

  • A Stat report on IBM Watson for Oncology doubtless ruined the IBM PR team’s week. The Stat piece casts Watson for Oncology as a wildly overhyped platform that has not been subjected to stringent review and may not be ready for prime time. Moreover, it suggests that rather than providing real decision support, Watson essentially serves oncs as a (so far disappointingly basic) gut-check and a sophisticated medical literature search tool – one which exhibits the cultural biases and preferences of its programmers at Memorial Sloan Kettering. Part of the problem: Watson has not yet brokered access to data at a scale that would allow it to tackle rare cancers. Our take: Let’s not kid ourselves – for all the buzz about AI and deep learning, it’s early days for these exciting technologies, and we’re a long way off yet from the day when an algorithm will best most human diagnosticians. Still, even today’s crude proto-AI is beginning to have an impact on patients, providers and pharma – in the case of Watson, as a marketing hook for subscribing hospitals, among other things.

 

  • One interesting tidbit in that Stat piece compared IBM’s investment in Watson to what it spent building its mainframe computer – still a mainstay business for the company -- in the ‘60s (around $137 billion in today’s dollars, the news outlet calculated). A just-announced partnership with MIT falls far short of that number – IBM will invest $240 million over 10 years to build an AI Lab at the university – but it’s a sign that Big Blue intends to leverage some of the biggest brains in academia to make this work. 

 

  • The evidence for health tracker effectiveness at treating chronic conditions is spotty at best so far – but a big part of the problem lies in the so-called “app graveyard” effect, with one academic quipping: “Studies that have looked at ongoing engagement with devices have found that basically people stop using devices that are given to them over time. That’s one of the central challenges in efforts to improve health through technology and digital devices. While there have been enormous advances in technology, there’s still a lot of work to be done with the science of habit formation.”

 

 

  • Novartis’ departing CEO, Joe Jimenez, is one of the most influential and respected industry leaders of the past decade. He says his next move is likely to be to Silicon Valley, where he’s interested in working at the intersection of tech and biotech. Under Jimenez, Novartis partnered with Alphabet’s Verily to develop a blood glucose-monitoring contact lens (estimates of its prospects vary and timelines have been moved back, but it’s a super-cool concept and Exhibit A for tech-pharma partnerships).

 

  • Speaking of tech-pharma hybridization, a startup backed by Alphabet, Novartis and AstraZeneca is working to develop “a robotic pill that moves through the stomach,” thereby delivering injectable drugs like insulin in pill form.

 

  • Big Pharma is experimenting with Big Data. Merck is partnering with oncology non-profit Project Data Sphere on an initiative “to expand the open-access of de-identified patient data sets to further enhance analytical capabilities.” Meanwhile, Sanofi is partnering with Evidation Health on its behavioral data analysis platform Real Life Study.

 

  • Merck is also investing in digital clinical trial recruitment with a bet on Antidote.me, which serves ads based on search terms with potentially relevant clinical trial info. And digital clinical trials platform Clara Health is launching a patient empowerment-themed campaign with backing from the likes of Takeda, Janssen and Amylyx. MM&M has a great longread on innovation in digital clinical trials recruitment (or the lack thereof). Our friend Shwen tells them: “Forget [clinical organizations within big companies], the majority of people in pharma still aren't fully fluent in digital. In every other industry, you don't even get in the door without that digital ability, yet pharma is still hiring agencies to handle this work,” Gwee explains.

 

  • Facebook continues its courtship of pharma with a clinical trial recruitment pitch. While pharmas couldn’t target users by condition, they could build targeting profiles based on ‘Likes’ and other indicators, as CPG brands have been doing for ages.  Rich Meyer cautions pharmas to understand that Facebook users are there to be informed, not sold to.

 

 

 

  • Amazon is taking on Google and Facebook as an advertising platform, emphasizing in pitches to agencies “that its data reflects how people research, consider and purchase things, not only on Amazon but also elsewhere.”

 

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