IBM’s struggle with Watson in health care doesn’t mean tech can’t help

IBM Watson might not deliver on its lofty goal to revolutionize medicine with artificial intelligence, as a recent investigation suggests.

But that doesn’t mean new technology will be incapable of improving health care.

IBM put a heavy dose of investment and hype into the medical potential of its machine learning system Watson. It was supposed to help doctors make decisions on how to identify and treat diseases, most specifically cancer.

STAT News reported this week that Watson has failed to gain much adoption in hospitals and has proven ineffective at recognizing various cancers.

Experts who have spent years researching the space told CNBC that IBM blundered by prioritizing headlines over peer-reviewed evidence. Still, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the potential for machine learning to help detect patterns of disease.

“What bothers me is that exposing hype makes people wonder whether any of this is real and whether the whole thing is marketing,” said Robert Wachter, a practicing physician and chief of the Division of Hospital Medicine at University of California, San Francisco Medical Center. To that question, “the answer is a strong no,” he said.

In the past five years, doctors across the country have moved from paper-based systems to electronic ones, with more than 90 percent of hospitals having made the shift. All this new digital health data is still messy and challenging to access, but it’s more available than ever.

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