IBM’s Watson continues to seek a role as a cognitive computing tool of choice for physicians and pathologists in need of evidence-based clinical patient data

Remember IBM’s Watson? It’s been five years since Watson beat human contestants on Jeopardy. Since then, IBM has hoped Watson could be used in healthcare. To that end, some oncologists are exploring the use of Watson in cancer care. This could have implications for anatomic pathologists if oncologists developed a way to use Watson in the diagnosing cancers and identifying appropriate therapies for those cancers.

In 2011, IBM’s Watson supercomputer defeated human contestants for a charity prize during the television show Jeopardy. Just days later, Dark Daily reported on IBM’s goal for Watson to play a major role in helping physicians diagnose and treat disease. Since then, IBM has been exploring ways to commercialize Watson’s cognitive computing platform through partnerships with some of the healthcare industry’s biggest brands.

‘It Takes a Village’ to Transform Healthcare

“No one company is big enough to transform an industry on its own. It takes a village to change,” declared Kathy McGroddy-Goetz, PhD, Vice President of Partnerships & Solutions, IBM Watson Health, in an article published in Fortune magazine.

Watson might not be on pathologists’ tool belts now, but IBM executives want to change that. IBM’s healthcare offerings and services are beginning to make some inroads. One such example that some oncologists (who refer much testing to clinical laboratories) may already have on their iPads or tablets is an app called Watson for Oncology.

This app is a product of the partnership between IBM and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK). It provides oncologists with clinical patient data to assist in evidence-based decision making at the point of care.

Watson and MSK Aiding Oncologists’ Decisions

The idea behind Watson for Oncology was to combine MSK’s extensive healthcare expertise and Watson’s analytical speed to transform how doctors devise individualized cancer treatment plans. The app runs on iPads and other tablet devices, and enables doctors in remote areas to provide high-end cancer care, according to the Fortune article, which noted that providers at hospitals in India and Thailand already use the app.

Mark Kris MD-Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center-400wx72ppi

Mark Kris, MD, is a Medical Oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) Cancer Center, Chair in Thoracic Oncology, and the lead doctor in MSK’s participation in development of the Watson for Oncology app—a tool built upon IBM Watson’s cognitive computing platform to provide physicians with improved access to pertinent cancer data and practices. (Photo copyright: Westchester County Association Health Tech ’15.)

“The handwriting was on the wall. This kind of a concept was not an ‘if’ question but a ‘when’ question. We knew we wanted to be part of the team that developed it,” stated Mark Kris, MD, MSK Medical Oncologist and Chair in Thoracic Oncology, in the Fortune article.

Watson for Oncology draws from MSK’s clinical knowledge, existing molecular and genomic data, and vast repository of cancer case histories, according to an IBM and MSK statement.

Here’s how the app works, as explained by Fortune:

• An oncologist who is seeing a patient with a rare lung cancer is not aware of new cancer drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and whether they might be appropriate for the patient;

• Watson for Oncology recognizes case studies about related patients seen by MSK specialists;

• After the doctor queries Watson for Oncology, the application returns a list of potential treatments and their risks. The physician can then review and consult with the patient.

Other Watson Health Partnerships

Another healthcare offering involving Watson was announced in April. IBM collaborated with American Cancer Society (ACS) to create a virtual cancer health advisor. The digital initiative aims to give cancer patients and physicians access to ACS resources and guidance that can be personalized for patients over time, according to an IBM press release.

ACS and Watson Health want to empower the 1.6 million Americans diagnosed with cancer each year by providing them with tools to track and engage in their own cancer treatment plans. They intend to create the new advisor by training Watson to draw on their two organizations’ mega database repositories to identify and anticipate a patient’s needs. Thus, when a breast cancer patient, for example, asks her IBM/ACS developed digital advisor why she is having pain, the tool will respond with options for evidence-based care drawn from experiences of people with similar health conditions, CIO reported. And, as Watson learns from engagements with patients, the options it presents will be tailored to each patient’s unique needs.

If there is a single conclusion that can be made about Watson’s contribution to healthcare since its 2011 victory on Jeopardy, it is that IBM has yet to find the “killer app” for Watson as a clinical tool. However, because technology advances are ongoing, pathologists and clinical lab managers should not be surprised if IBM is thus able to add capabilities to Watson that enable it to deliver substantial value.

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

After Taking on Jeopardy Contestants, IBM’s Watson Supercomputer Might be a Resource for Pathologists

Here’s How IBM Watson Health is Transforming the Healthcare Industry

American Cancer Society and IBM Announce Collaboration to Create a Virtual Cancer Health Advisor

Harnessing IBM Watson as a Digital Companion for Cancer Patients

IBM Puts Watson to Work on Cancer with New Patient Advisor Tool

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, IBM to Collaborate in Applying Watson Technology to Help Technologists

CVS Health and IBM Tap Watson to Develop Care Management Solutions for Chronic Disease

CVS & IBM Watson Cloud Pursue Ways to Predict Patient Health 

IBM Watson Health to Acquire Truven Health Analytics and Its Millions of Patient Records for $2.6 Billion