IBM (NYSE:IBM) recently announced that it will use Watson, its Jeopardy-playing supercomputer, to help Mayo Clinic match active clinical trials with eligible participants. According to IBM, there are approximately 8,000 clinical trials at Mayo Clinic, and about 170,000 trials being conducted worldwide.

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Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The partnership aims to digitally streamline the process of connecting patients to clinical trial investigators. The current system requires the patient, the patient's doctor, or someone the patient knows to find the trial and contact investigators. Meanwhile, investigators must widely publicize their trials to reach eligible patients and doctors. As a result, some trials are canceled due to insufficient enrollment.

Mayo and IBM's solution is to let Watson merge Mayo Clinic's clinical trial database and public databases like ClinicalTrials.gov into a single searchable system. Mayo and IBM will first develop a proof-of-concept system, and plan to launch the system for clinical use next year. Their goal is to increase the percentage of patients engaged at Mayo trials from 5% today to 10% -- which would be more than triple the national average of 3%.

The cloud-based future of healthcare
The IBM and Mayo collaboration is one of several efforts to standardize the clinical trials system on a digital platform.

Last March, Novartis (NYSE:NVS) launched Clinical Trial Seek, a mobile app that helps doctors and patients find cancer clinical trials. Users can search through the trials by location, disease, treatment, phase, sponsor, and eligibility requirements. The app sources its data from ClinicalTrials.gov. Other, smaller companies -- including Omniscience, Exco InTouch, and Mytrus -- have also developed various apps that can help patients locate trials, submit clinical trial consent forms, or record health data.

Veeva (NYSE:VEEV) -- a company that organizes data for pharmaceutical companies over the cloud -- stores digitized trial data in its Vault electronic trial master file service. Veeva's service is designed for life science companies instead of doctors and patients, but it's easy to see how this database could be connected to Mayo's efforts with Watson.

Although many companies are working on different pieces of the puzzle, convincing everyone to work together could be challenging. Speaking to Mobihealth in 2012, Paulo Machado, CEO of digital health consulting firm Health Innovation Partners, said a fully digitized clinical trials platform probably wouldn't materialize until 2030 due to these challenges.

How IBM, Mayo, Apple, and Epic could speed things up
Yet one tech giant's growing presence in the healthcare industry could speed things up considerably.

In June, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) integrated Mayo Clinic's database and electronic health records, or EHR, from Epic Systems into its HealthKit platform, which connects fitness apps and wearable devices to the new iOS 8 Health app.

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Apple's Health app. Source: Apple.

In July, Apple signed a partnership with IBM to fill in the gaps in each company's businesses -- Apple needed to expand into enterprise, while IBM needed more consumer-facing products. The deal allows IBM to create native iOS apps for businesses and optimized cloud services for iOS. IBM will also sell iPhones and iPads installed with industry-specific software to enterprise clients worldwide.

With IBM's partnership with Mayo, the digital circle is nearly complete -- Watson is reorganizing clinical trials, fitness apps and wearables are combined on a single dashboard, and biometric data can be sent to a patient's EHR. These services will likely complement each other in the future -- EHR data could eventually be synchronized with clinical trials, while data recorded from clinical trial apps (synchronized to HealthKit) could be sent back to the EHR. Meanwhile, biometric wearable devices could remotely monitor a patient's condition throughout the day.

One great leap forward
IBM's partnership with Mayo Clinic shows just how far Watson has advanced in healthcare.

Watson previously scanned medical journals and cancer patient records at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, giving it the equivalent knowledge of a third-year medical student. IBM has also launched an application programming interface, or API, for Watson, which allows partners to integrate the supercomputer into smartphone apps. Welltok, a social health company, recently used that API in an app that answers a wide variety of health-related questions.

Organizing clinical trials into a fully digitized database would be a giant leap forward for the healthcare industry, but I believe IBM's partnerships with Mayo and Apple could eventually unlock even more remarkable advancements in mobile health.

 

Leo Sun owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and International Business Machines. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.