This Editor hadn’t thought about or seen news about IBM Watson Health in over a year…and likely, neither did you. Granted, our minds have been Otherwise Engaged, but for the company that was supposed to dominate AI and health analytics, it’s notable that TTA’s last two articles mentioning Watson Health was 25 April 2019, on a report that its Drug Discovery unit was being cut back as the latest in a series of executive cutbacks and lawsuits (MD Anderson on a failed oncology initiative), and 14 Feb 2020 on 3M’s lawsuit on unauthorized use of their software.
The New York Times in an investigative piece (may be paywalled or require signup for limited access), brings us up to date on what is happening at IBM Watson, and it’s not bright for Watson Health. IBM, like so many other companies, badly underestimated the sheer screaming complexity of health data. Their executives believed they could translate the big win on the “Jeopardy!” game show in 2011, based on brute computing power, into mastery of healthcare data and translation into massive predictive models. The CEO at the time called it their ‘moon shot’. Big thinkers such as Clayton Christensen chimed in. IBM managers sang its praises to all in healthcare who would listen. This Editor, on a gig at a major health plan in NJ that was ‘thinking big’ at the time and used IBM consultants extensively, in 2012 was able to bring in speakers from Watson for an internal meeting.
But we haven’t been on the moon since 1972 (though probes have visited Mars). Since the big push in 2011-12, it’s been one stumble after another. According to the Times:
- The bar was set much too high with oncology. Watson researchers knew early on in their research at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine that their genetic data was filled with gaps, complexity, and messiness. The experience was similar with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The products growing out of the UNC and MSKCC research, Watson for Genomics and Watson for Oncology, were discontinued last year. These were in addition to the MD Anderson Cancer Center initiative, Oncology Expert Advisor for treatment recommendations, that was kicked to the curb [TTA 22 Feb 2017] after $62 million spent. At the same time, IBM’s CEO was proudly announcing at HIMSS17 that they were betting the company on multiple new initiatives.
- Watson Health, formed in 2015, bought leading data analytics companies and then didn’t know what to do with them. TTA noted in August 2018 that Phytel, Explorys, and Truven Health Analytics were acquired as market leaders with significant books of business–and then shrank after being ‘bluewashed’. HISTalk, in its review of the Times article, noted that along with Merge Healthcare, IBM spent $4 billion for these companies. IBM’s difficulties in crunching real doctor and physical data were well known in 2018 with revealing articles in IEEE Spectrum and Der Spiegel.
Six years later, Watson Health has been drastically pared back and reportedly is up for sale. Smaller, nimbler companies have taken over cloud computing and data analytics with AI and machine learning solutions that broke problems down into manageable chunks and business niches.
What’s recoverable from Watson? Basic, crunchy AI. Watson does natural language processing very well, as well as or better than Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. Watson Assistant is used by payers like Anthem to automate customer inquiries. Hardly a moonshot or even clinical decision support. For business, Watson applications automate basic tasks in ‘dishwashing’ areas such as accounting, payments, technology operations, marketing, and customer service. The bottom line is not good for IBM; both areas bring in a reported $1 billion per year but Watson continues to lose money.
In a few short years (2012 to now), IBM Watson Health has gone from being a 9,000 lb Harbinger of the Future to a Flopping Flounder. It was first MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas last year [TTA 22 Feb 17] kicking Watson to the curb after spending $62 million, then all these machine learning, blockchain, and AI upstarts doing most of what Watson was going to do, but cheaper and faster, which this Editor observed early on [TTA 3 Feb 17]. At the end of May, IBM laid off hundreds of workers primarily at three recently acquired data analytics companies. All came on board as market leaders with significant books of business: Phytel, Explorys, and Truven. Clients have evaporated; Phytel, before the acquisition ranked #1 by KLAS in analytics for its patient communication system, reportedly went from 150 to 80 clients. IBM denies the layoffs were anything but much-needed post-acquisition restructuring and refocusing on high-value segments of the IT market.
IEEE Spectrum rated the causes as corporate mismanagement (mashing Phytel and Explorys; IBM’s ‘bluewashing’ acquired companies; the inept ‘offering management’ product development process; the crushed innovation) plus inroads made by competition (those upstarts again!). What’s unusual is the sourcing from former engineers–IEEE is the trade group for tech and engineering professionals. The former IBM-ers were willing to talk in detail and depth, albeit anonymously.
Der Spiegel takes the German and clinical perspective of what IBM Watson Health has gone wrong, starting with the well-documented failures of Watson at hospitals in Marburg and Giessen. The CEO of Rhön-Klinikum AG, which owns the university hospital at Marburg, reviewed it in action in February. “The performance was unacceptable — the medical understanding at IBM just wasn’t there.” It stumbled over and past diagnoses even a first-year resident would have considered. The test at Marburg ended before a single patient was treated.
The article also outlines several reasons why, including that Watson, after all this time, still has trouble crunching real doctor and physical data. It does not comprehend physician shorthand and negation language, which this Editor imagines is multiplied in languages other than American English. “Some are even questioning whether Watson is more of a marketing bluff by IBM than a crowning achievement in the world of artificial intelligence.” More scathingly, the Rhön-Klinikum AG CEO: “IBM acted as if it had reinvented medicine from scratch. In reality, they were all gloss and didn’t have a plan. Our experts had to take them by the hand.”
Hardly The Blue Wave of the Future. Perhaps the analogy is Dr. Watson as The Great Oz.
[grow_thumb image=”https://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/IBM-Watson-Announcement.jpg” thumb_width=”200″ /]A Day with a Big Exclamation Point for Healthcare Data and Analytics. In a series of press releases late NY time on Monday and a spectacular announcement at HIMSS (photo hat tip to Sandeep Pulim via Twitter), the recently quiet-on-the-healthcare-front IBM Watson has announced multiple major moves that re-position it squarely into the healthcare arena as the 90,000 lb. Elephant.
- IBM Watson Health is now a separate business unit headquartered in Boston. The Watson New York headquarters will be expanded, but that may be for their other businesses: travel, retail, veterinary care, cognitive computing, and IT security and support. IBM claims that Watson Health will be hiring up to 2,000 healthcare consultants, clinicians and researchers, folding in existing units such as Smarter Care and Social Programs.
- The IBM Watson Health Cloud is now their secure, open and HIPAA compliant platform for health-related data: physicians, researchers, insurers and health and wellness companies.
- Three new partnerships were announced, designed to bolster IBM in different aspects of what is to be done with All That Data being generated from health and fitness devices. IBM Watson Health Cloud will be the secure platform, storage and analytics for Apple’s HealthKit and ResearchKit. Johnson & Johnson will be working with Watson on pre/post-operative coaching and education and Medtronic on diabetes management using data from Medtronic devices. (more…)