Mark Kris, MD, Chief of Thoracic Oncology, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, left, and Manoj Saxena, IBM General Manager, Watson Solutions work with the first Watson-based cognitive computing solution for oncology in New York City on February 11, 2013.
Photograph by Jon Simon — Feature Photo Service for IBM
By Laura Lorenzetti
April 12, 2016

IBM and the American Cancer Society are launching a new partnership that will combine the power of Big Blue’s cognitive computing platform, Watson, with the wealth of cancer research and patient support services provided by the non-profit organization.

The Watson Health initiative was announced Tuesday by CEO Ginni Rometty at the 13th annual World Health Care Congress, a meeting that gathers top executives from health and life sciences companies to discuss the biggest issues affecting the industry. The two organizations will combine forces to create a service that will provide cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers personalized access to vetted cancer resources.

“Watson has read reams of oncology literature, but this phase is now about learning all the cancer advocacy literature and how to support cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers in their journey,” said Kyu Rhee, chief health officer of IBM (IBM).

More than 1.6 million Americans are diagnosed with cancer every year, and patients are hungry for accurate, useful information that’s specific to their disease. The American Cancer Society has collated over 14,000 pages of vetted, detailed information across more than 70 cancer topics, as well as risk reduction and early detection information–most of it currently accessible on its website cancer.org.

Watson will “ingest” this information and link it to the Watson Health Cloud, a secure collection of de-identified patient data. It will use all that knowledge as the foundation for the health advisor, which will be able to respond directly and personally to a user. No internet searching necessary.

For example, say a woman was diagnosed with late stage breast cancer. She’s already decided with her doctor on her treatment path but is now experiencing extreme pain after her first round of chemotherapy. She could turn to the health advisor to ask, in natural language, if this pain is normal.

The advisor would be designed to use the wealth of data within Watson to compare to other women with similar characteristics, then provide details on standard symptoms and self-management options particular to the stage in her disease and treatment. It may tell her that slight pain is normal but anything extreme should be reported to her doctor. Over time, the advisor may also learn that she prefers group support sessions over individual health coaching and recommend a group for that on Wednesday nights — the evening she’s reported feeling at her best.

The final format and capabilities of the cancer health advisor haven’t been confirmed. IBM and the American Cancer Society are aiming to have the service available early next year, said Rhee. It could potentially work as an app on a phone or tablet, and it could also be linked with IBM’s Watson for Oncology offering, said Rhee. Watson for Oncology is a specialized platform that puts deep clinical knowledge directly into a doctor’s palm so he or she can make a personalized, evidence-based treatment decision for a patient. It was developed in partnership with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and is already being used in hospitals in India and Thailand.

“Doctors are really focused on the treatment, and they may often overlook what patients need around those points of care, like social networks or caregiver support,” said Rhee. “With this new partnership, we want Watson to help nudge doctors to remember those issues, as well.”

By pairing the patient-centric new advisor with the clinician-focused platform, IBM envisions a full-circle approach to cancer treatment. Watson technology would first help the doctor make a clinical treatment decision, then the doctor can switch over to the health advisor option to share information on localized cancer services like volunteer transportation options.

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