Advance Blog

June 27, 2018
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AI and Healthcare: A Progress Report on Watson for Oncology

By Udo Kim, Senior Manager, Expatriate Market Segment at International Bumrungrad International Hospital

Seven years ago, an artificial intelligence (AI) computer system built by IBM and nicknamed Watson pulled off a stunning victory over a team of human champions on the television quiz show Jeopardy!

Just over two years ago, Bumrungrad became the first hospital in the world to launch Watson for Oncology to support quality care for cancer patients.

IBM partnered with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in the U.S. to develop Watson’s natural language-processing capabilities into a cloud-based cognitive computing platform.

How Watson works

Watson for Oncology processes a patient’s medical information and attributes, then searches its huge database of information not within the reach of most doctors — thousands of cancer patients’ medical records and genetic profiles, global treatment guidelines, journal articles, and peer-reviewed research studies — and delivers a series of treatment options for consideration…within seconds.

Here is a brief progress report on Watson for Oncology and the platform’s expansion beyond Thailand, along with a look at promising AI healthcare applications being developed.

Growing Utility

In simple terms, Watson serves as an expert “second opinion” for Bumrungrad cancer patients and a cognitive decision support tool for our oncologists. Initially, Watson covered four cancer types; the system has expanded significantly and now covers the cancer types that account for 80 percent of cancer cases.

Beyond making treatment recommendations, Watson now has the ability to undertake clinical trials matching, taking a patient’s medical details and search its constantly updated global database to find clinical trials of experimental cancer treatments where the patient’s attributes align with a trial’s enrolment criteria.

Now in 11 Countries

In the two-plus years since its launch at Bumrungrad, Watson for Oncology has been adopted by more than 150 hospitals and healthcare organizations across 11 countries, including China.

Watson is arriving at a critical time in China, where the prevalence of cancer has been increasing significantly over many years. On an average day in China, 7,500 people die of cancer and 10,000 new cases are diagnosed — in a country with an heavily-burdened healthcare system and very few oncologists. Primary care physicians typically treat cancer patients, so Watson’s body of cancer knowledge can be an important resource to inform their treatment decisions.

More AI Applications  

Watson is currently being trained to handle medical imaging similar to the way it is used for oncology, where imaging often plays a role in diagnosis and throughout the treatment process. It is hoped that Watson will be able to master reading and interpreting medical images well enough to raise the accuracy of tomography and other imaging-based screening technologies.

Along with imaging, Watson is learning genetics. Currently, a group of hospitals and genomics facilities in the U.S. is testing Watson’s capabilities for reading genomic data, interpreting the data, and then developing actionable insights worth further study and clinical research.

At some future point, Watson may be able to identify the genetic profile of a high-risk individual for a specific disease years or decades before the disease develops, and determine which prevention strategies to consider for the particular genetic profile.


Udo Kim, Senior Manager, Expatriate Market Segment at International Bumrungrad International Hospital
Udo Kim, Senior Manager, Expatriate Market Segment at International Bumrungrad International Hospital