Is IBM Really Making Progress with Watson in Healthcare?

IBM's senior VP of cognitive solutions and IBM research defended the company's progress on bringing the benefits of AI to healthcare after recent media reports cast a negative light on the technology.

Recent media reports have cast doubt on the benefits of IBM's Watson computing system in healthcare, but the company isn't taking the criticism lying down.

"I feel it is imperative to set the record straight," John Kelly III, senior vice president of cognitive solutions and IBM research, wrote in a blog post for IBM.

IBM has placed a big bet on healthcare, Kelly said. 

"We know that AI can make a big difference in solving medical challenges and supporting the work of the healthcare industry," he said, adding that the company also sees an enormous business opportunity in this area as the adoption of AI increases.

He highlighted three distinct cancer tools that IBM has developed: Watson for Oncology, which provides treatment options that augment an oncologists' own expertise; Watson for Clinical Trial Matching, which helps match patients with clinical trials; and Watson for Genomics, which uses genetic sequencing to make strides towards personalized oncology.

Kelly said IBM is working with cancer institutes like Memorial Sloan Kettering and Mayo Clinic to evolve and refine these tools, which are now in use at 230 hospitals and health organizations globally and have nearly doubled the number of patients they've reached in the first six months of the year to 84,000.

"We have always believed that the role of technology is to assist a doctor in delivering better care and patient outcomes," Kelly said. "Therefore, the first question we asked ourselves was, 'can Watson help oncologists make better decisions for their patients?' Repeatedly, the answer has proven to be a resounding 'yes,' as demonstrated in both peer-reviewed research as well as regular feedback from those using these tools."

Kelly pointed to a poster presentation at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting in which Mayo Clinic physicians reported that Watson for Clinical Trial Matching boosted enrollment in breast cancer trials by 80% following implementation (to 6.3 patients per month, up from 3.5 patients per month in the immediate 18 months prior).

Memorial Sloan Kettering oncologists have helped to train Watson for Oncology on 13 cancers, according to Kelly, which he said represents up to 80% of the global cancer incidence and prevalence.

Kelly also noted a group of oncologists at Manipal Hospital in India who said they use Watson for Oncology with all of their complex cases in their multidisciplinary tumor board and it is changing their treatment recommendations in 9% to 11% of patient cases.

And at the University of North Carolina Lineberger Cancer Center, oncologists reported that Watson for Genomics found new, actionable mutations in 32% of patients.

"We are absolutely committed to being a positive force in applying AI and other technologies to healthcare. The opportunity, including the potential impact on patients around the world, is too important," Kelly said. "Our work is only getting started. We are steadfast in our purpose and committed to our partners and clients around the world as together we continue to move forward."

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Watson AI Dx appears to be a currently seemingly effective adjunct to human Dx far more so than TV Dr House. But the AMA fears increasing AI applications that may lessen the importance of their members in diagnosis and therapy of numerous diseases, notably cancer. The shift to AI Dx would obviously weaken the lobbying power of the AMA and its members, facing potential extinction or becoming accessories to bots.