IBM Watson Health and Medtronic: Where devices, data, and patient engagement meet

“When you’re dealing with a chronic disease like diabetes, 90 percent of medical care is done by the patients themselves,” says Jeff Ruiz, vice president of diabetes service and solutions at Medtronic. The time people with diabetes spend in the doctor’s office each year pales in comparison to the time they themselves spend managing their condition each and every day.

That’s why Medtronic, the world leader in diabetes management devices, is focused on patient engagement and turning real-time data into actionable insights. “You can provide all the best devices and medications, but it’s up to the patient at the end of the day,” said Ruiz, speaking on Monday during a panel discussion at the 2015 Boston Children’s Hospital Global Pediatric Innovation Summit + Awards.

Medtronic recently partnered with IBM Watson Health to adapt the investigative powers of Watson — the supercomputer that won “Jeopardy!” in 2011 — to diabetes care and management. Watson Health was launched in early 2015 as way to integrate data analysis into the health-care delivery system.

With diabetes, there are long-term concerns universal to all patients (kidney disease, nerve damage, heart disease) and short-term concerns that are more individualized (a sudden and dangerous drop in blood sugar, also called a hypoglycemic event). Medtronic’s main focus right now is to turn real-time data into actionable predictions about potential adverse events in the near future, Ruiz said.

In one of the partnership’s first joint projects, Watson was able to sift through Medtronic’s entire patient database, cluster individuals into smaller patient groups, and predict hypoglycemic events with 90 percent accuracy 3 hours in advance. When you’re limited to analyzing data one patient at a time, Ruiz pointed out, this kind of predictability is simply impossible.

Still, utilizing big data in health care comes with its set of challenges. One of the foremost challenges is finding a way for independent systems and databases to communicate seamlessly, said Deborah DiSanzo, general manager of IBM Watson Health, who spoke alongside Ruiz at Monday’s summit.

“We have all this data in these disparate databases and it’s all locked up,” she said.


The solution is twofold, the panelists suggested: 1) aggregate and consolidate health data from the various servers and databases where they are stored; and 2) get rid of the barriers that prohibit researchers from accessing and studying those data.

Another challenge: Whenever you talk about data-sharing in health care, patient privacy concerns arise. “All of the data in Watson’s cloud is anonymous,” DiSanzo said, adding that people have generally been comfortable sharing that data.

“It’s about providing value,” said Ruiz. On the whole, he explained, people understand the larger benefit of contributing to a large pool of data that can be mined for research that may improve the standard of care for society as a whole.

And again, it all comes down to patient engagement. Every day, people with chronic conditions make hundreds of decisions related to self-care. When their individual medical information is translated into helpful advice, they can make more informed decisions and take control over their own health and well-being.

Watch the full panel discussion and other Summit sessions at