IBM WatsonIBM’s data analytics engine Watson, having cut its teeth on complex health care conditions like cancer, is now entering an even more challenging space: wellness. Why is wellness more challenging? Because understanding a person’s wellness goes beyond mining data from health care claims silos in hospitals, pharmacies, and physicians’ electronic health records.

Wellness happens where we live, work, play and pray. Wellness is nurtured through choices made every day at home, in the workplace, and at moments-of-truth in the grocery store and restaurant where slick marketing messages planted in our subconscious compete with our more rational minds that tell us to shop the perimeter of the store and order from the fresher side of the menu.

Social health managementTo get to the wellness end of the health care continuum, IBM announced a strategic investment in Welltok, which has trademarked itself as a “social health management” company, illustrated by the virtuous cycle graphic of listening and learning, guiding, influencing, reporting, attracting, and so on. The company was founded in 2009.

Welltok’s core product is CaféWell, which provides a “cafeteria” platform for employers, plan sponsors and retailers to engage with members/customers and support their health engagement.

The investment is the first being made by the newly-formed Watson Group in IBM, part of a $22.1 million round of Series C funding for Welltok. Other investors in this round include the lead New Enterprise Associates (NEA), along with Qualcomm Ventures, Emergence Capital Partners, InterWest Partners, Miramar Venture Partners and Okapi Venture Capital.

Welltok and IBM began working together in November 2013 on the CaféWell Concierge project. The announcement for that project said that,

Welltok is a key partner within a new ecosystem of businesses that will create apps infused with IBM Watson’s cognitive computing intelligence. In line with today’s announcement, IBM is launching the Watson Developers Cloud, where software application providers ranging from start-ups to established technology leaders, such as Welltok can collaborate with IBM to create Watson-powered apps. The cloud will feature a “sandbox” for app creation, as well as a developer toolkit, educational materials and access to IBM Watson’s application programming interface (API).

As part of this Concierge offering, participants can create their own menu of health questions, with the back-end IBM system “marrying” the consumers’ benefits information, location, and preferences with suggested health and wellness programs, resources and rewards. Examples of this suggestion loop are serving up dining and menu options based on geo-location, health status (like diabetes or high blood pressure); local support groups that could be helpful to the individual’s goals; and, suggesting healthy activities and associated rewards/incentives.

Welltok’s platform CaféWell Connect focuses on six areas:

  • Biometric and health risk assessment
  • Condition management and wellness, through Brain Resource for depression, Propeller Health (for asthma and COPD), and Wildflower Health for prenatal care
  • Health content, via Greatist and Health Nuts Media
  • Health tracking, via consumer-facing self-tracking devices like Fitbit, FitLinxx, and Jawbone/Bodymedia
  • Mobile health apps, via Asumio and MapMyFitness (now owned by UnderArmour)
  • Patient communities (the initial community via the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America).

IBM formed the Watson Group investment fund in early January 2014 with $1 billion to support strategic initiatives in Big Data analytics.

Health Populi’s Hot Points:  Welltok has the opportunity to do real-world, grounded population health management well beyond traditional (and unsuccessful) approaches. The company’s multi-track paradigm gets to people where they “are,” and provides ongoing communication that’s tailored and just-in-time…blending into peoples’ life-flows.

Watson has been successfully deployed in “sick care” settings, like cancer and high-intensity trauma hospitals. The data analytics engine has driven value for reducing readmissions to hospitals for health plans and is working to personalize cancer treatments for people in the community.

Wellness gives Watson the opportunity to drive even more value for getting and keeping people well, and living longer, healthier lives. Welltok demonstrated the ROI of the CaféWell program in the HealthAmerica health plan. This infusion of both substantial cash and the Watson engine could scale that ROI across more companies and drive public health/wellness outcomes in the communities where the program is deployed. The combination goes well beyond “technology,” marrying social to data analytics. The program is designed to enable people in daily life to shop for the right health devices for them, to continue to track numbers, to access health content they will likely appreciate, and to stay on-track through community support and rewards.

This approach also bolsters self-empowerment in creating health – “self-health.” It’s what we’re all about on HealthcareDIY, supporting people to eat right, use technology, shop smart, and live well. Health is social.