Watson and the Consumer Demand of Cancer Treatment

By Kimberley Ferguson, Executive Vice President, Sales & Marketing

Will we be asking our doctors for Watson by name? IBM is counting on it.

Consumers are powerful agents for change. We are more involved today in our own healthcare than at any other point in history. We have the internet (and its endless medical advice) at our disposal, we can search NIH studies to our hearts’ content, we request medicines by name, and we take advantage of technological advancements that allow us to track every step and macronutrient. Television shows like Pure Genius give us big ideas about what the future of care might present, and our own physicians encourage us to take on a larger role in our health and wellbeing. And now, IBM wants to be sure we know there’s already a futuristic new tool to trust on the healthcare horizon, and its name is Watson. 

Watson is IBM’s supercomputer; it is IBM’s big bet on artificial intelligence. While Watson has shown its skills in everything from cooking to Jeopardy!, its sights have settled on a much bigger prize: healthcare and big data. Wikipedia describes its function as, “combining artificial intelligence and sophisticated analytical software for optimal performance as a question-answering machine.” In other words, we can ask a question of Watson and it will answer it. And the more data it ingests, the smarter it gets. In the realm of healthcare, Watson aims to offer point-of-care recommendations to physicians by finding patterns in massive amounts of health data and making its own calculated observations. It can assist in evaluating treatment decisions, unearth clinical trials, and compare a patient record against its stored intelligence. All of these are highly valuable attributes, with the potential to assist physicians seeking the latest published information and support crucial healthcare advancements. While it has its drawbacks, its potential for global advancements in care and treatment can’t be underestimated. Neither can IBM’s marketing strategy.                                                                 

A recent 60 Minutes feature on IBM Watson highlighted its application in healthcare, specifically cancer treatment. While still in its infancy, it appears reliant on initial partnerships with established learning organizations known for a high quality of care, even those with the rarest forms of disease. Watson’s success in assisting physicians and tumor boards was exciting to watch. And from a marketing point of view, so was IBM’s direct play for the end consumer. 

In the promotion of Watson, IBM has engaged our inner researcher—the part of us that will go to great lengths to find an answer to a quandary, whether it’s our own or that of a friend or loved one. IBM is looking to us (patients and potential patients) to encourage hospitals, research, and care organizations to adopt Watson. IBM’s strategic push to create consumer demand for Watson is a brilliant marketing strategy. We know that Watson is only as intelligent as what it is taught, and to increase its efficacy, it needs to learn as much as it can from innumerable sources. There are certainly challenges that could create hesitation by an organization considering Watson, namely its requirement that your data become part of Watson’s permanent knowledge. We explore these challenges in greater detail in our point of view piece, “When Watson Doesn’t Compute,” but talking directly with the end consumer creates pressure from a different angle altogether. As consumers, we are more pliable in our evaluation of Watson. In the case of cancer, especially, we weigh our options in terms of life and death and evaluate it in an understandably emotionally-charged context that creates asymmetries in the economics. We aren’t considering cost, data ownership, interoperability, or intellectual property, nor should we. We care whether Watson will cure cancer.

This is an important dynamic—consumers are rightly uncomfortable placing a value on life and happiness, and our empathy and compassion serve IBM well. This in no way deems IBM’s approach amoral. It’s marketing at its most strategic. But a direct-to-consumer play also bypasses essential gatekeepers in medicine: physicians and researchers working daily in pursuit of new treatments, discoveries, and cures—the same physicians and researchers that would need to relinquish ownership of that work to Watson in order to access its intelligence. Watson and AI undoubtedly have a purpose in the future of medicine by bringing broader, more advanced access to medical expertise to many patients around our country and the world. To reach that level of Watson saturation and intelligence, IBM needs, and wants, us to ask our healthcare providers for Watson by name like any other brand. What remains to be seen is whether our perception of Watson’s value as consumers will match their goal. From a strategic marketing perspective, it will be fascinating to watch unfold.

To further explore our point of view on Watson’s potential in healthcare, as well as an evaluation of its challenges and scenarios where it may not always prove the ideal solution, read our latest opinion piece: “When Watson Doesn’t Compute.” 

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