EMBA Students Preview New Healthcare Tool: IBM’s Watson

IBM’s Watson, the computing system that entered the spotlight when it beat Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings in 2011, is coming to the doctor’s office, representatives of the company told executive MBA students from the healthcare industry during a class on March 7.

IBM staffers, visiting Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld’s course “Leading Strategic Change,” said that the company is already marketing Watson as a data management tool in the healthcare sector and plans to expand into sectors such as financial services and retail.

According to IBM, Watson is the first cognitive computing system capable of continually learning and enriching itself through interaction with humans and computers. In healthcare, the company says, the system can help doctors arrive at treatment plans and relevant clinical trials, and enable more efficient interaction with data and electronic records.

The EMBA students, themselves physicians and other healthcare professionals, wondered whether Watson could adequately respond to the many—and often nuanced—variables involved in diagnosing and prescribing treatment for patients. John Kim ’14, who is the chief medical dosimetrist in the therapeutic radiology department at Yale New Haven Hospital, asked if the system could be programmed to take into account the subtleties of patient demographics and presentation. Watson constructs broad “causal relationship,” said Michael Barborak, IBM research manager. “If you can express those things that way, it’s within the range of possibility.”

Dr. Anees Chagpar ’14, a surgeon at the Yale Cancer Center, pointed out that information and medical customs differ greatly around the world: cancer care in Zimbabwe is not the same as cancer care in the U.S. Watson is currently being developed with U.S.-based data and practices, Barborak said, but he agreed that international guidelines would eventually need to be created.

David Paller ’14, the director of clinical development at Rhode Island’s University Orthopedics, asked whether individual patient outcomes can be fed back into Watson, so that the system can learn and adjust based on how its previous suggestions impacted real-life situations. “Yes, we can use confirmed diagnoses to feed back into Watson,” Barborak said. “All attributes can be adjusted.”

The conversation was a unique opportunity for students to understand how a technology with a large potential impact on the healthcare sector fits into IBM’s strategy, Sonnenfeld said later.

“Our EMBA course addresses the challenges of strategic change across sectors with a special emphasis on healthcare and the role of CEOs as initiators of transformation,” he said. “IBM CEO Ginni Rometty’s major investment in Watson is a dramatic example of how to catalyze truly distinctive, cutting-edge internal house knowledge to partner with clients for differentiating problem solving.”

Dr. Howard Forman, director of the healthcare focus area in the MBA for Executives program, agreed that the presentation provided an important peek into the future. “The discourse related to Watson was an eye-opening experience for the many physicians, venture capitalists, hospital managers and providers, and others who were fortunate to join this class,” he said.