JUPITER, Fla. — There’s little evidence that IBM’s Watson supercomputer can correctly identify the best cancer treatments for a patient better than doctors do on their own. So why are hospitals around the world buying Watson for Oncology?
One answer can be seen here in this Florida beach community, where a local hospital ran a TV commercial until last month trumpeting Watson. It opens with a man lying flat on his back, ready to enter a scanner, with upbeat piano music in the background. Seconds later, a surgical team starts to move in slow motion as the narrator’s voice drops a few notes.
“Jupiter Medical Center is the first regional medical center in the country to adopt IBM Watson for Oncology,” the narrator says. An electric-blue globe whirls around, and the frame zooms in on Jupiter, one of the few places in the United States where cancer doctors are seeking treatment advice from this computer program developed by IBM.
Since the ad began airing in April, about three dozen people have called the hospital inquiring about Watson, said Kathleen Ahern, Jupiter’s director of marketing.
“They call and say, ‘Can I see Dr. Watson?’” said Kerri Ward, an oncology nurse.
Of course, there is no Dr. Watson. But while a STAT investigation found that Watson is nowhere close to revolutionizing cancer treatment — as IBM’s marketing suggests — the calls show why the supercomputer is appealing to many hospitals. Watson’s cachet can be lucrative as a lure for additional cancer patients: Hospitals can charge thousands of dollars for treating each one.
Watson’s ballyhooed win in “Jeopardy!”, combined with a marketing campaign featuring megastars Bob Dylan and Serena Williams, and the public’s infatuation with artificial intelligence — from the “Space Odyssey” computer HAL to the movie “Her” — help drive enthusiasm for a product with no published research supporting its impact on patient care.
Though many hospitals are skeptical of Watson for Oncology and not signing up, others are seeing an opportunity in riding Watson’s coattails. They know that being associated with IBM and artificial intelligence will help their hospitals’ reputations.
“One of the many reasons for the hospital to adopt this system is [that] we’d like to project an image … as technically advanced,” said Nan Chen, senior director for R&D and clinical data at Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand, which draws patients from all over the world.
Bumrungrad was the first hospital to sign an agreement with IBM to implement Watson for Oncology. That was back in 2014. But before it got the system up and running, a large hospital network in India announced that it would also soon be offering the product. That pushed Bumrungrad to hasten its efforts so it would be able to claim it was the first to treat a patient using Watson for Oncology, Chen said.
“We sort of have a bragging right,” he said.
Most of the oncologists at the Thai hospital are board-certified by U.S. organizations, and they don’t need Watson to tell them what they already know, Chen said, though he emphasized that he thinks it’s a good technology. Doctors at a Mongolian affiliate, with less advanced training, have tapped into Watson to guide care of more than 50 patients, he noted.
Elsewhere in Asia, a hospital in Guangzhou, China, has named part of its cancer service the “Panyu District Watson Institute of Oncology consultation center,” according to a press release. And a South Korean hospital hung a gigantic banner featuring the Watson globe from one of its buildings.
Other hospitals are starting to market Watson’s oncology expertise as a sort of second-opinion service for patients. At the India hospital group, Manipal Hospitals, patients not being seen in its network of hospitals can buy a personalized Watson treatment recommendation for 9,500 rupees — about $150 —along with a videoconference with an oncologist. (A videoconference without Watson costs about $30.)
A Taiwan hospital launched a similar service in July, where about $330 will buy you a Watson opinion and an in-person consultation with an oncologist, according to Dr. Jeng-Fong Chiou, executive vice superintendent for the Taipei Cancer Center at Taipei Medical University.
Manipal CEO Dr. Ajay Bakshi said that, as of July, fewer than 100 people have bought the Watson consultation, and that the hospital is vigorously promoting the service across India.
“If you are a middle-class patient that has cancer, and you’re worried [whether] your doctor is giving you the best treatment or not, it’s well worth it,” he said.
Bakshi is hoping that Manipal’s multimillion-dollar investment in Watson for Oncology will improve the quality of cancer care overall — and draw more patients.
“Our quality will, over a period of time, become better and better,” he said. “We will get more referrals and more patients of cancer walking into our hospitals. That’s happening in the first six to seven months after launch. It’s sort of a long-term bet we’ve taken.”