The Biggest Lesson Learned from IBM Watson

Posted on August 13, 2018 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of and John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

There’s no sexier marketing story than IBM Watson. When IBM Watson beat Ken Jennings on Jeopardy, there was an explosion of coverage. The most promising area for IBM Watson was healthcare. However, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported, IBM Watson has fallen short of expectations in healthcare.

More than a dozen IBM partners and clients have halted or shrunk Watson’s oncology-related projects. Watson cancer applications have had limited impact on patients, according to dozens of interviews with medical centers, companies, and doctors who have used it, as well as documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

In many cases, the tools didn’t add much value. In some cases, Watson wasn’t accurate. Watson can be tripped up by a lack of data in rare or recurring cancers, and treatments are evolving faster than Watson’s human trainers can update the system. Dr. Chase of Columbia said he withdrew as an adviser after he grew disappointed in IBM’s direction for marketing the technology.

No published research shows Watson improving patient outcomes.

No doubt, part of the problem is that IBM Watson could never live up to the hype. The hype was too big. However, it seems that IBM Watson has really fallen short from even the most conservative hopes for it. That’s a big problem.

One thing that’s interesting about IBM Watson is that they spent no marketing on it. Especially in healthcare. At the IBM Think events the past couple years they didn’t have any healthcare press or influencers at their event. Their marketing team’s response was that they didn’t have any budget to market to healthcare because they got so much coverage for IBM Watson already.

Fair enough. IBM Watson has gotten a ton of exposure in healthcare, but maybe if they’d invited the press they could have had some real conversations about whether IBM Watson was real or was it memorex (Sorry for those that don’t know this old reference). While not always the case, the healthcare IT press and influencers are a different breed that asks deeper questions about a product and what it can do to impact healthcare. It feels like IBM Watson had so much hype that not enough people held them accountable for actually delivering results to healthcare organizations.

From the same WSJ article linked above is this great quote:

“The discomfort that I have—and that others have had with using it—has been the sense that you never know what you’re really going to get…and how much faith you can put in those results,” said Lukas Wartman of the McDonnell Genome Institute at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Dr. Wartman said he rarely uses the system, despite having complimentary access.

The concepts of AI and machine learning that IBM Watson represent are incredible and I believe will impact healthcare for good. However, it’s still not there yet. The trust isn’t there.

The core lesson I take from IBM Watson is that things like Jeopardy can create hype for a certain product, but in healthcare we need more than hype. We need trust. If a healthcare provider can’t trust the result, then your product won’t go anywhere and won’t be used. Unfortunately for IBM Watson, beating Ken Jennings on Jeopardy creates a lot of awareness, but does nothing to build trust.

The jury is still out on IBM Watson on healthcare. They’ve spent billions on it and so it’s not like it’s going to just disappear. Hopefully, it does turn the corner and becomes a trusted tool for many in healthcare. Trust just takes consistency over time. That’s an important lesson for many healthcare IT products.