In deciding on cancer treatment, doctors often get together in a “tumor board” to go over the options. IBM’s Watson now sits in on those meetings in a few hospitals, such as in South Korea and India—and it generally makes the same calls that a human expert would. So says IBM in a series of studies it’s presenting this weekend at the ASCO cancer treatment conference in Chicago. “It’s not making a diagnosis. That’s not what we set out to do,” says Andrew Norden of IBM’s Watson Health division. “They will run Watson Oncology in a tumor board and sort of get another external opinion.”
Watson’s “concordance rate”—the degree to which it agrees with human doctors—ranged from 73% to 96%, depending on the type of cancer (such as colon cancer) and the particular hospital where the study was done (in India, South Korea, and Thailand).
Watson did a sort of residency at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York City, training with cancer data and input from doctors. It learned by reading—lab reports, doctors’ notes, X-ray reports, and oodles of research papers. The next phase is to teach Watson how to see so it can, for instance, read X-rays. IBM bought medical imaging company Merge Healthcare in 2015 to make this possible. Watson is currently learning to read mammograms for breast cancer and CT scans of the chest for lung cancer.