IBM's Watson Could Be Healthcare Game Changer - InformationWeek
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Doug Henschen
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IBM's Watson Could Be Healthcare Game Changer

IBM's cognitive computing technology moves past Jeopardy and into serious healthcare challenges, including cancer treatment. IBM's rivals seem stuck on more prosaic problems.

10 Medical Robots That Could Change Healthcare
10 Medical Robots That Could Change Healthcare
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It was an amazing feat when Watson, IBM's "cognitive" -- listening, "thinking" and learning -- computing platform handily beat two Jeopardy grand champions in February 2011, but it also left us wanting to know if, when and how the technology would be used in the real world. The world got its first glimpse of Watson at work in a commercial setting on Friday when IBM announced the release of three new health care decision-support applications.

The three new applications include one for recommending cancer treatment options and two for reviewing and authorizing treatments and related health insurance claims. They are the first examples of what IBM describes as a next-generation cognitive computing that has the potential to change healthcare, and IBM promises it's just the beginning, as IBM and several partners are planning many more applications. IBM is also moving to roll out Watson in other information-intensive industries including banking, insurance and telecommunications.

The company started with healthcare and, within that field, chronic care and cancer because of the challenge. "We didn't choose it because it was easy," said Manoj Saxena, general manager of IBM Watson Solutions, at last week's event. "We chose it because it has the most meaning and impact on society."

[ Want more specifics on IBM's new healthcare apps? Read IBM Watson Helps Doctors Fight Cancer. ]

The topics that IBM is addressing these days -- using analytics to improve public services such as policing, run electrical utilities more reliably, and, most particularly, treat cancer more effectively with Watson -- are a stark contrast to the preoccupations of many of its biggest rivals. IBM presciently sold its PC business to Lenovo back in 2004. Today, server rivals Hewlett-Packard and Dell are both mired in the question of how to move on either with or without the low-margin, commoditized PC business.

Oracle, meanwhile, is trying to stabilize the Sun server business -- which saw its heyday in the dot-com era -- by tying it closely to its successful and profitable software business with its Exa systems. That's a sound business strategy, but it's not exactly a grand vision for transforming industries or benefiting society. CEO Larry Ellison seems mostly interested in chest thumping about these engineered systems and taking pot shots at rivals IBM, SAP and; the closest thing to real vision is Oracle's fairly new customer-experience push.

IBM teamed with Memorial Sloan-Kettering (MSK) in New York, one of the world's top institutions for cancer treatment, to develop Interactive Care Insights for Oncology, the clinical decision-support application announced last week. A key difference between Watson and prior-generation decision-support tools, said executives from IBM and Sloan-Kettering, is that it keeps learning. It incorporates the latest symptoms and test results on individual patients and also the latest medical research and clinical trial outcomes. Over the last year, Watson has been trained on more than 600,000 pieces of medical evidence and two million pages of text from 42 medical journals and clinical trials in the field of oncology. Sloan-Kettering has added details on 1,500 lung-cancer cases, training the technology to interpret physicians' notes, lab results and clinical research on specialized treatments based on the genetics of tumors.

"There has been an explosion in medical research, and doctors can't possibly keep up," said Dr. Mark Kris, chief of Sloan-Kettering's Thoracic Oncology Service, who demonstrated the oncology application on an iPad at last week's event.

The iPad app is akin to the patient's chart, with light note taking and entry of new symptoms possible, but the heavy-duty entry of patient records and lab test results happens behind the scenes so it doesn't interfere with a patient consultation. The doctor uses touch navigation to browse the latest symptoms and test results. The decision support is delivered as a prioritized list of recommended tests and treatment regimens together with confidence scores and links to supporting research.

In Kris' demo, a lung cancer patient's tumor is revealed to have a genetic marker that recent research says is not responsive to therapies usually prescribed in such circumstances. It was a fictitious demo example, but Kris said it highlights the very real opportunity to take advantage of the very latest advances in areas such as personalized care based on genetic research.

"We always rely on our colleagues to back us up on tough cases, and now we have an opportunity to consult with this new [digital] colleague to bring us additional information," Kris said.

Sloan-Kettering plans to move beyond lung cancer into other forms of the disease in the months and years ahead. Meanwhile, IBM has other partners, such as Cleveland Clinic and Cedars-Sinai, and plans to move into medical training and other chronic-care areas, such as diabetes, heart disease and mental health.

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User Rank: Author
2/13/2013 | 9:51:08 PM
re: IBM's Watson Could Be Healthcare Game Changer
Don't underestimate the cultural change needed to put such techniques to work in the day to day practice of healthcare. very practically, what's the right step in the patient interaction to bring in the machine? how do you share the results, and debate the machine when your diagnosis goes against it? or instill confidence if you're just agreeing with a machine? Much left to learn.
David Berlind
David Berlind,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/13/2013 | 6:36:18 PM
re: IBM's Watson Could Be Healthcare Game Changer
The healthcare and pharmaceutical industries have a history of weighing efficacy against cost. Based on what I'm reading in this article, it seems like the efficacy of having a Watson-like interlocutor involved in better healthcare outcomes is undeniable. But the question is, at what cost? Consider the process that a pharmaceutical company uses in considering a new drug for the market. The efficacy of the drug could be undeniable. Testing may have already proven how a significant # of lives could be saved if the company develops the drug and brings it to market. However, if the company foresees significant barriers in bringing the drug to market (barriers that amount to predictable and unpredictable costs), it may back away. Those costs could be development costs, costs to protect the IP (if the IP is even protectable), etc. The company backs away, the drug never makes it to market, and some number of lives that could have been saved are lost.

I for one would be interested to know what sort of cost a hospital or doctor's practice would be expected to bear in order to have access to Watson technology. I saw from the related story ( that Watson's functionality will be available through the cloud. We have to assume that customers like an oncology clinic will get the benefits of "cloud-enomics" (multi-tenancy, etc) that drive down the cost for customers, thus increasing the likelihood of adoption. But can we know more about those costs to better understand the balance of efficacy v. cost?
User Rank: Strategist
2/11/2013 | 10:25:33 PM
re: IBM's Watson Could Be Healthcare Game Changer
Health care is one of the places where a rules-based engine in many cases can sift through well defined patient symptons and come up with a well-defined answer. This is a great place to use computing power to make a preliminary or first diagnosis. In cancer cases, Watson is moving beyond that level to a deeper diagnostic capability. Obviously doctors will have to review its conclusions as a safety check and amend them or intervene in cases where Watson is struggling -- cases that do not fit into known patterns. But humans around the globe share a great similarity of symptons to known diseases and Dr. Watson will be right in many, many cases, given his relentless, machine-command of medical information sources. Charlie Babcock, InformationWeek
J. Nicholas Hoover
J. Nicholas Hoover,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/11/2013 | 8:48:44 PM
re: IBM's Watson Could Be Healthcare Game Changer
I'm also impressed by the dedication IBM has shown in placing Watson technologies onto commercial servers. This type of technology has application far beyond the healthcare arena, and we're on pace to see the impacts in a short time period.
D. Henschen
D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
2/11/2013 | 7:48:14 PM
re: IBM's Watson Could Be Healthcare Game Changer
The subtext here is that IBM's top exec thought ahead and made tough calls like selling off the printer business, the hard drive business and the PC business back when those were much tougher calls to make. Investments in Watson began in 2006, and there was no promise of an imminent payoff. In fact, they still have a long way to go, but this is about laying the groundwork for the IT business of 2020 and beyond. That took vision and courage.
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