CVS to Test IBM’s Data-Crunching Watson in Search of Care Trends

CVS Health Corp. will use IBM’s Watson analytics technology to try to help provide customers with better health care.

CVS will test International Business Machines Corp.’s technology on existing medical and pharmacy claims data to see if any telling trends surface, said Troyen Brennan, executive vice president and chief medical officer of CVS Health. The goal is to better predict which individuals are at risk for declining health and encourage patients to adhere to medicinal regimens.

CVS is among a handful of early IBM partners looking to make better use of health-care data with the tech company’s Watson technology, which can analyze troves of information for trends and answer questions in a natural language. Armonk, N.Y.- based IBM has been trying to drum up business for the recently commercialized tool.

“The first stage of this really is discovery,” Brennan said. “We’ve got to see what the machine can turn up.”

Using the Watson technology is an extension of CVS’s efforts to analyze its massive quantity of data on customers’ prescriptions and medical backgrounds. The health-care company currently uses that information for such purposes as contacting a patient’s doctor if she hasn’t filled a prescription.

Yet Brennan said there’s potentially more that can be done with the data that CVS has accumulated by being the No. 2 manager of pharmacy benefits, after Express Scripts Holding Co. The company also has about 7,800 drug stores, struck a deal last month to take over more than 1,660 pharmacies from Target Corp., and operates about 1,000 walk-in clinics with plans to expand to about 1,500 by 2017.

CVS hopes to figure out ways of mining all this data to determine when a person’s health is likely to deteriorate. That could help doctors intervene before an individual gets too sick, Brennan said.

Early Stage

“This is really just the next step, trying to take advantage of all the full arsenal of cognitive computing methods that are going to allow us to get different kinds of insights than we’ve gotten before,” he said.

Still, the partnership is “very early stage,” and IBM has yet to decide how many employees will work on development, said Shahram Ebadollahi, chief science officer at the tech company’s health unit. Pilot versions of the applications are expected to be finished in early 2016, with additional feature introductions later next year, he said.

IBM created the Watson Health business unit in April to help health-care companies analyze patient data. The tech company is relying more on industry-specific partnerships, including ones with Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic Plc, to boost sales, though the company has yet to disclose revenue from any of these ties.

The moves are part of a broader effort by IBM to sell more data-analytics and cloud-computing technology to make up for revenue lost due to weakened demand for older products and services. After year-over-year sales have fallen for 13 straight quarters, growth for new IBM offerings is still not enough to make up for declines from the rest.

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