Today, at a glitzy press conference at IBM’s new Watson headquarters in Manhattan’s swank Silicon Alley, IBM and Apple announced that they are partnering with Japan Post, which is among other things the largest health- and life-insurance company in Japan, to start a project that will provide iPads to millions of senior citizens with the aim of improving their health and their lives.
The project will help Japan Post, which already has a massive Big Data-style collection of health care information, to both know more about its customers and to improve the health and wellness of its seniors, which could, it stands to reason, also improve the financial health of its insurance businesses by allowing customers to live longer, healthier and more independent lives.
Japan Post Chief Executive Taizo Nishimuro said the effort has “the potential to affect an entire generation of people and bring our elderly citizens into the world of connection and convenience that come with iPhone and iPad. It’s my vision to enrich their lives.”
Apple and IBM chief executives Tim Cook and Ginni Rometty were both present at the press conference, emphasizing its importance to both firms. “Combined with Japan post we are going to build a service that not only can all be proud of but that will put a ding in the universe,” said Cook, looking down occasionally at an iPad on his lap. Added Rometty: “Today is about re-imagining life for what is the largest generation that has been in human history.”
Big words. But what exactly is this first step into a new way of trying to keep people healthy? Here’s my take.
How, exactly, will this work?
For this, there’s a clear answer. Japan Post already has a service through which it sends employees directly to the homes of its elderly customers to check up on them and to help them with arranging the minutiae of life, including medical appointments. These workers will bring the senior citizen an iPad, and sit with them and teach them how to use a suite of IBM-designed applications focused around the areas of health, family, and community.
The app will remind patients to take their medicines (the fictional anecdote used by IBM executives to explain that used a woman who kept forgetting her blood pressure medicine, which would put her at risk for a stroke), but also allow them to FaceTime with family and to book a plumber. The idea, the executives said, is to make it easier for seniors who may be getting more forgetful or having trouble with balance to continue to live independently.
There are lots of pilot programs to do this sort of thing, but the Japan Post effort differs in its scale – Nishimuro said that the plan was to roll this out to millions – and in its reliance on Apple and IBM technology. The executives didn’t mention any telemedicine component, where patients could directly connect with doctors or nurses, but it’s easy to imagine one. The customers won’t pay for the iPad, although there may be a nominal fee for the service, an IBM spokesman said. There will be a limited roll-out, and testing for functionality, before the project can move full tilt.
Can you protect people’s privacy?
Japan Post is one of the most trusted companies in the world, working in a culture that has dramatically different attitudes about both privacy and caring for seniors than the U.S. does.
But can you imagine letting a U.S. health insurance company know every piece of information being collected here? Could Aetna or Cigna roll out a similar program? That depends on whether patients can really be sure that a company they trust (like Apple) can protect their data from one they probably don’t (any company in U.S. health care).
The data will be in a secure cloud. Rometty said that customers will opt in or out of having their personal details known, or providing data in an anonymized fashion. “I believe that discussion of privacy and convenience is a tradeoff individuals make all the time,” she said.
Can you prove that iPads actually help people stay healthy?
The idea behind this project is that it will help senior citizens remain independent and healthy for longer, while giving peace of mind to relatives who will be able to stay in touch with them more closely. In the fictional case study IBM used to explain this effort to the press, the patient’s high blood pressure would mean that getting her to take her medicine more often would improve her life.
Obviously, Japan Post will be collecting huge amounts of data that, with IBM analytics, it will use to try to learn about how to keep people healthy. But will these companies be able to prove that giving a grandmother an iPad can save her life?
It wasn’t clear what kind of data collection IBM, Apple, and Japan Post will be doing to prove that this works. Studies taken from insurance databases are generally considered less reliable than experiments where people are randomly getting an invention, or not getting it. Hopefully, Japan Post will be able to compare people who got iPads at different times to see if these apps actually help people be healthier, instead of just making them happy that they got a new toy.
Could this be rolled out in America?
Obviously, trust issues about giving information to insurers are a bigger hurdle in the U.S. than in many other countries. But there are other issues, too.
As Cook noted, the U.S. health care market is fragmented. No insurance company here has the reach that Japan Post does. Apple and IBM say they are trying out a huge number of pilot studies, including one related to home health care that is being done by Express Scripts.
Will this work?
IBM and Apple deserve huge congratulations for the way they are taking on the problem of improving health care for seniors – especially since it is a problem health care companies are failing to solve. This is a big deal.
But I also saw something I didn’t like at the press conference: a tendency to talk a lot about how great the gadgets and apps they were developing are without much data about whether or not they actually improve health. It’s very possible, maybe even likely, that an iPad giveaway program, paired with the right apps, could make senior citizens with chronic health problems healthier and more independent. But it’s not a foregone conclusion, and it deserves a more reasoned approach. Apple and IBM are moving into new territory here, and they’re going to have to do something that is always hard for anyone, but that both companies have excelled at over the years.
They’re going to have to think different.
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Source: Forbes Health