IBM Watson for Oncology: What is it exactly?


Watson is an IBM supercomputer named after Thomas J. Watson who led IBM into the computer era. It represents a fundamental shift in the paradigm of computing – moving from programmable systems which have been the mainstay for the last several decades to learning systems that keep getting smarter as they process more knowledge. IBM has a business unit dedicated to transforming healthcare into a quantifiable service where every bit of information is available. It is called Watson Health and offers services in Genomics, Drug Discovery, Oncology, Imaging etc. By using it, physicians only have to go through their personalized reports instead of reading through dozens of papers for every patient’s case.

Watson for Oncology

It is among the first AI driven oncology clinical decision support system, which is being used around the world to help clinicians advance cancer care by reducing the time spent on searching literature & EMR and providing evidence based treatment options. It was developed by IBM in concert with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK), one of the world’s leading cancer centers. It is scaling rapidly and is used by more than 50 hospitals in 13 countries across 5 continents. Manipal Hospitals has adopted Watson for Oncology in the first Watson engagement in India to meet her rising cancer challenge. More than 200,000 individuals receive care for cancer at Manipal facilities each year.


How does it work?

  • IBM Watson is a system based on cognitive computing wherein the system interacts naturally and tries to get better day by day by learning new things, just like we humans do.
  • They help human experts make better decisions by penetrating the complexity of Big Data. To date, Watson for Oncology has ingested nearly 15 million pages of medical content, including more than 200 medical textbooks and 300 medical journals.
  • Watson’s machine learning capability means it is continuously learning about oncology over time, and doctors have access to peer reviewed studies, clinical guidelines, and expert perspectives.
  • Natural language processing (NLP) is a way in which human can interact with computers with a language we speak daily, let’s consider English here. NLP helps Watson in analyzing the case info, identifies a prioritized list of treatment options and provides links to supporting evidence.

Product Key Features

  • Quickly generates a list of potential treatment options ranked by applicability- recommended, for consideration and not recommended.
  • Review treatment options and supporting evidence side by side to understand Watson’s rationale and quickly access the relevant articles and clinical data.
  • Help oncologists understand specific care options available to their patients.


IBM Watson comes up with the most relevant and likely medical outcomes based on patients’ data. However, physicians will make the final call. Computer assistance can only facilitate the work of physicians; it will definitely not replace it.



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