Some of the biggest pharmaceutical companies, including Astra Zeneca and GlaxoSmithKline, are investing big in the development of “smart” asthma inhalers that use sensors to track how patients are faring and if they’re using these devices properly. To achieve their goal of improving medical outcomes, these firms have announced partnerships with technology vendors ranging from startups like Propeller Health to big brands like Qualcomm. Today, IBM Watson announced that it is throwing its hat into the ring by teaming up with Teva Pharmaceuticals, a drug maker with a large respiratory portfolio including a “smart” inhaler it acquired last year.
“Despite decades of availability of a variety of different types of medications, and inhalers, it is well documented that many people living with asthma still experience uncontrolled symptoms and frequent attacks,” says a Teva spokesperson, adding that much of that is due to the behavioral aspects of managing the disease, such as patients using their inhalers improperly.
For this reason, industry experts say the challenging part isn’t just the connected hardware. “The greatest advances will come from the software systems that use the data to improve patient outcomes and experience,” says Chris Hogg, chief operating officer at Propeller Health, a startup that is developing mobile tools for patients with chronic respiratory disease. Hogg says the holy grail is to use this data to drive “drive personalized, adaptive dosing of medications.” In other words, ensuring that patients are taking the right dose of meds, at the right time.
The idea behind this partnership is to connect a Bluetooth-connected inhaler to Watson’s cloud-based app for analysis. To get a better sense of a patient’s health, the app incorporates population-level health information, coupled with data gleaned from the individual patient’s inhaler, explains IBM Watson Health chief health officer Kyu Rhee.
And Watson is also incorporating information from The Weather Company, the hyperlocal weather forecaster, which IBM acquired in 2015. Some of the major triggers for patients with asthma and chronic lung disease are weather-related. Companies like Propeller Health have also been experimenting in the past few years with incorporating data about air quality, temperature, pollen levels, and humidity, and are now using that data to predict asthma risk.
According to IBM, this is just the first of a series of partnerships with The Weather Company, which will be aimed at helping those with respiratory conditions.
The ultimate goal for the partnership is to demarcate the patients that are at higher risk of an asthma attack, and make recommendations that might help. These might include nudging a patient to notify their physician to potentially increase the medication amount, or take an emergency inhaler once they leave the house if there’s a lot of pollen in the air.
“These cognitive insights will be connected to the patient’s health care team, so that they can be aware, and make appropriate health care decisions,” says Rhee.