In the opening keynote address at HIMSS17, IBM global CEO Ginni Rometty told attendees that cognitive computing could lead to a “golden age” in U.S. and global healthcare, if governed and managed wisely. Rometty, who became president, chairman, and CEO of the Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM five years ago, spoke to an overflow audience of more than 7,000 attendees Monday morning at HIMSS17, the annual conference sponsored by the Chicago-based Healthcare Information & Management Systems Society, and being held at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida.
“When I became CEO five years ago, it was at a really great moment, when we got to publicly introduce Watson, on the ‘Jeopardy’ program,” Rometty said. “I said, this would be our next moonshot. I would never be arrogant enough to believe we could change healthcare itself, but we could change some small piece of it.” Then, two years ago, she noted, her IBM colleagues were able to announce the debut of Watson Health, at the HIMSS Conference (she wasn’t able to attend two years ago). That, she said, was a huge moment, not only for the company, but for healthcare as a whole. “Government and regulatory developments, the ACA [Affordable Care Act], acquisitions—those are all very important issues,” Rometty said, acknowledging the currently unsettled nature of the policy and business landscape in U.S. healthcare. “But I also believe this is a profoundly hopeful time for us,” she quickly added. “We’re at a moment where we can change large pieces of healthcare. It is a moment. And I think it’s in our power.”
IBM CEO Ginni Rometty addresses HIMSS17
Speaking of this moment, when cognitive computing is advancing rapidly in healthcare, Rometty said, “I hope to persuade you of three things. First, it is real, it is here, and it is mainstream, and it can change healthcare. I think we’re going to make three key architecture decisions in the next two to three years, that will change the world, and healthcare will change more than any other industry,” she said. “And cognitive computing could usher in a new golden age in healthcare, if it is shaped wisely.”
Expanding on that comment, Rometty told her audience, “First, cognitive healthcare—artificial intelligence—is mainstream, and it is real. There’s a land rush a round artificial intelligence right now. And I don’t mean speech-to-text on the front of a search engine. I mean real application in healthcare, financial services, and retail, and so on. So I thought I’d share five lessons we’ve learned in applying AI [artificial intelligence] to healthcare,” she said. “One, those who are successful with AI end up developing a range of cognitive services. Second, you have to provide transparency. Who trained it? What data was used? You have to have confidence in what you’ve done. Third, it’s got to be domain-specific, meaning that it has to be developed by healthcare people trained in healthcare. Fourth, it has to be hybrid cloud-based, with security. You’ve got to be able to connect people in disparate environments. And finally, fifth, it’s got to be done by an ecosystem of people.”
A very broad range of use cases is already emerging for cognitive computing, Rometty said, noting the breakthrough recently made by researchers at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix. As a Dec. 14, 2016 report in the Arizona Republic noted, “Researchers at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix tapped the supercomputing powers of IBM Watson to find new potential genetic links to the deadly muscle-robbing disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Barrow officials said researchers used IBM Watson to identify new genes that previously were not linked to ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.” She also noted that a number of national healthcare systems in a number of countries, including China, India, Thailand, and Finland, are using Watson Health to begin to support both research and diagnosis in patient care now, with the ability to dramatically cut down the time needed for physicians to access insights from clinical decision support tools for diagnostics, including for cancer. In that context, she said she sees a confluence of diagnostics and precision medicine coming on the horizon. She said she also sees a broad confluence between efforts around precision medicine, and healthcare consumer engagement with wearable devices like FitBits.
Rometty quickly referenced a number of announcements being made Monday morning at HIMSS17—the press release for all of those announcements can be read here—including around the Central New York Care Collaborative, and Atrius Health. In the case of the Central New York Care Collaborative (CNYCC), BM will work with CNYCC to create a population health platform, intended to connect 2,000 care providers across six counties, and with the goal to reduce costs in the Medicaid system by decreasing the amount of avoidable hospital stays by 25 percent over the course of the project, leveraging IBM Watson Care Manager, other Watson Health solutions, and the IBM Cloud. In the case of Atrius Health, the Auburndale, Mass.-based integrated health system has contracted with IBM Watson Health to research the use of a cloud-based service that would provide physicians with a holistic view of the social determinants of patients’ health status, in order to support physician-patient shared decision-making.
Meanwhile, addressing directly some of the concerns that have bubbled up across healthcare and other industries about cognitive computing/artificial intelligence ultimately forcing many professionals out of their jobs, Rometty said, “We want everyone to understand the purpose of this: we are building technology to augment what man does, not replace” human intelligence. This will support doctors, nurses, IT people, and augment their intelligence, not replace it. It is not about fear. That was the first of several core principles that Rometty said she wanted to make clear for her audience. “The second,” she said, “is a principle around transparency. We will be clear with you and your clients when they are being touched by AI, how it was built and who builds it. And the business model, the training, the algorithms, they will go to you. Then, third,” she said, “with every new era, new jobs will come. And it’s incumbent on us to train for those jobs. We have coined a term called ‘new-collar’—not white-collar or blue-collar,” she said, but rather, “new-collar,” to express a whole new cadre of jobs and careers that will emerge in the emerging technological era.
“This is a historic moment,” Rometty said in the conclusion to her prepared remarks. “It’s a world of forces some outside of our control, some within. But don’t be tentative. It’s time to play offense. You can build this world. The cognitive world will be healthier, more secure, less wasteful, more productive, and in the end, a fairer, more just world.”
After she had concluded her speech, HIMSS president and CEO H. Stephen Lieber sat down with Rometty onstage for a short question-and-answer session. In response to his question as to why IBM ended up choosing to concentrate so strongly on healthcare specifically, Rometty said, “This was a big decision, not only to make it a moonshot. But we’ve invested heavily now, billions and billions of dollars. I think it is the right moment now, for two reasons. A, there’s no bigger grand challenge that’s important to the world. And B, there is a confluence of things that could make it be the right time. Health is not a formal system, per se, and that’s always been the challenge. And many companies have never really been products, they’ve been features, so you have all these little islands everywhere. But we have the mechanisms now to pull this together, including platforms, the cloud, connectivity. And this is technology that can free the practitioner”—the physician, the nurse, any clinician—from current time constraints around the ability to access knowledge to improve diagnostic and treatment capabilities.
Responding to Lieber’s question about how the IBM Watson folks have achieved buy-in and participation from many clinician leaders, Rometty said, “We’ve had many, many learnings. And something you know already is the importance of [inserting decision support and other tools] in the workflow at the opportune moments. That’s true in healthcare, and it’s also true in other industries.”