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Technology Is the Health Care System’s Final Frontier

As chief health officer at IBM Watson Health, Kyu Rhee, MD, is always on top of technological developments in health care, making his insight invaluable.

Kyu Rhee, M.D.

Chief Health Officer, IBM Watson Health

How has technology revolutionized the health care sector, and where do you see it taking the industry?

Health care is fundamentally about relationships. Relationships between a health care professional like a doctor (e.g., primary care physician, oncologist, radiologist), pharmacist or a social worker and a patient; a health plan representative and a member; a self-insured large employer and their employees; a pharmaceutical company and the people they serve; a governmental public health professional and a citizen. The last 10 years have been about leveraging technology to create systems of electronic health records. Many health care professionals and patients have felt that technology has not helped or has even impaired the relationships at the center of health care. Studies have shown that doctors spend only one of every three minutes in the office listening and seeing patients. In addition, many doctors are spending one to two hours per evening working on their EMRs at home… also known as “pajama time.” Now with the power of data, analytics and artificial intelligence (AI), we have an extraordinary opportunity to translate these systems of records into systems of insights to help facilitate and improve those relationships that are at the center of what health care is about. It will be essential for us to assure that these technologies are made “with” and “for” the people at the center of health care.

How has IBM Watson changed the industry thus far?

IBM Watson Health is only three years old and we have already made steady progress in applying data, analytics and AI to health. We are committed to tackling the world’s biggest health challenges. For multiple stakeholders in the health ecosystem, Watson Health’s efforts are already having an impact. With over 13,000 clients, we are working around the globe on things such as: helping people with diabetes better manage glucose levels; informing important clinical decision-making related to cancer with a suite of oncology products; and supporting life sciences researchers in drug discovery for diseases like ALS and Parkinson’s.

What kinds of technological disruptions does Watson have on the horizon?

IBM Watson Health is working to leverage data, analytics and AI to provide “augmented intelligence” and “actionable insights” to the diverse stakeholders in the health ecosystem. We are listening and learning from our clients and partners to assure we are applying our data, technology and expertise to address the key challenges in health such as: identifying and reducing unwarranted variation in care; increasing efficiencies and rooting out waste in the system; improving patient engagement and navigation of the fragmented health care system; accelerating medical and drug discoveries; reducing health disparities and promoting health equity; and preventing health care workforce burnout.   

What is your take on AI being integrated into health care solutions?

Since demonstrating the potential of AI and introducing it on a public stage with the gameshow of Jeopardy in 2011, IBM has had an important role in bringing the power and potential of AI into numerous different industries, including the financial/banking industry, automotive, retail and more. In health care, trust is the most important commodity, and we believe in the power of AI — never to replace people in health care, but to help facilitate more trust and augment how people deliver care. Basically, we see and believe that “humans + AI” will deliver more trust and value to key stakeholders in the health care ecosystem — or who I think of as the seven P’s: providers, payers, purchasers, policymakers, product manufacturers, pioneers and patients. In health care, validation through science and evidence is essential to build trust.

What do you have to say about the stigma that surrounds AI in this industry?

I can relate to and understand how there can be and should be questions about the role of technology in health care. Over the past decade, health care professionals have been disappointed with the role of technology and how it originally promised better value, yet has often impaired their ability to deliver care. For example, some have stated that doctors have been like very expensive data entry clerks with these current record systems of records. We believe that technologies enabled by artificial intelligence — or as we like to say at IBM, augmented intelligence — will be able to transform these systems of records into systems of insights and empower doctors to spend more time building relationships with their patients. We also believe that data, analytics and AI will help the different stakeholders in health care better predict progression and risk, personalize treatments, prevent disease and promote health for the patients and populations served. The volume of new and untapped disparate data sources that can be leveraged for insight is growing at an unprecedented rate. AI can help companies become more agile and rapidly develop and deploy new innovations. The key is finding the right balance and understanding the potential and limitations of AI. Technology should never be making decisions, but rather should be augmenting a health care professionals’ own expertise.

In health care, the volume of data keeps growing at a rate that is simply not sustainable for a lot of the manual approaches used today; therefore, we need rely on new tools and technologies like AI to help support doctors, researchers and health care leaders. In order to gain the trust of those stakeholders and prove its value over time, the impact of this technology must continue to be validated with research and evidence to ensure it’s being applied safely and delivering clinical value. But even as AI becomes an increasingly indispensable resource in health care, the clinician should ultimately remain accountable and responsible for a patient’s treatment.

How important is technology in managing patient outcomes? And what is your advice for health care organizations that are struggling to digitize their business?

We have always believed that the role of technology is to assist a doctor in delivering evidence-based care that will advance patient outcomes. But a great deal of health data still lacks fluidity and sits in silos, unable to be easily interpreted and in a format where it cannot provide actionable and useful information. Health care companies need to consider who they trust to share data/content with and how to combine disparate content and data sources to leverage more actionable insights. Data alone does not provide optimal insight. AI and analytic capabilities, in combination with the right collaborations, can help to translate your systems of records into relevant, actionable systems of insights. Both AI systems and end users must be trained together as part of a symbiotic relationship; no one technology or person can or should do it alone. Companies must be prepared to invest in training users as much as they are training the system itself. In health care, you can’t just build it and expect people to come. You need to build it, prove it with evidence and relentlessly deliver value for people to trust the use of data, analytics and AI for the patients and populations they serve.

Looking forward, how can we improve the quality, safety and efficiency of patient care with technology?

We believe in the potential of data, analytics and AI to address and improve the crises in quality, safety and efficiency. For example, the average patient with diabetes has to make more than 180 decisions daily to keep glucose levels in the target range. Working with our partner Medtronic, we created the Sugar.IQ™ with Watson, an app that aims to give people insights to help manage their diabetes. New data from Medtronic found that people with diabetes using the Sugar.IQ app spent 36 more minutes per day in healthy glucose range compared to before they used the app. This represents more than nine additional days in a year that a person with diabetes is spending in a healthy glucose range. This should lead to better quality, safety and efficiencies in health care.

At the same time, any technology needs to improve based on continuous feedback, especially in health care. Protocols to assess and address feedback need to be put in place to enhance the functionality over time. The clinical value and impact of technology should also be validated through science, data and research. Working closely with medical professionals is a critical component of this, ensuring the technology evolves with their needs and technical processes.

What excites you about the future of digital health?

The health care industry is unique, complex, local and personal for all involved. There is enormous opportunity to make a positive impact so people around the world can live better, healthier, longer lives.  We are excited to take health technology to the next level — from systems of records to systems of insight. We believe technologies like Watson and AI can make possible what was previously unthinkable.

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