IBM’s latest employee benefit: medical advice from Watson

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IBM will be the first company to offer Watson’s cognitive technology as an employee benefit for cancer treatment options.

Employees and family members will have access to Watson’s oncology suite, which gives cancer patients a second opinion through data collected from medical records and genomics testing, starting Jan. 1.

This is the first rollout of the Watson supercomputer to assist employees affected by cancer, a disease that costs Americans $125 billion a year, according to the National Institutes of Health.

See also: IBM, Welltok team on Watson-based health system

“We have access to the first of its kind,” says Barbara Brickmeier, IBM’s VP of Employee Benefits. “We are bringing this out to the market. Why not be the first employer to offer it to our employees?”

Watson’s oncology service has three arms: Watson for Oncology, Watson for Genomics and Watson for Clinical Trial Matching.

Qualified employees or covered family members with lung, breast, colorectal and gastric cancers can use Watson for Oncology, which uses IBM's natural language processing and machine learning capabilities to process data for evidence-based treatment recommendations, and Watson for Clinical Trials Matching, which enables clinicians to quickly match patients with potential trials for cancer treatment using cognitive computing combined with natural language processing.

Patients with Stage III or Stage IV cancer, regardless of type, can use Watson for Genomics, which analyzes the genomic profile from a patient's tumor and identifies potentially cancer causing mutations.

In combination with Watson’s services, IBM partnered with global medical information services company Best Doctors to evaluate the data and provide a second opinion. Medical records, test results and other relevant information are released to Best Doctors, Brickmeier says.

See also: Cancer ‘complex and intimidating’ for benefit professionals

Watson analyzes data from New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, which has been feeding medical literature on cancer for more than four years, and the supercomputer has been learning how cancer has been traditionally treated, according to Health Data Management. (EBN’s parent company Sourcemedia also owns HDM.)

IBM also partnered with Apple, Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic in 2015 to make it easier for healthcare organizations to store and analyze patient data by leveraging Watson’s cognitive that leverage information collected from personal health, medical and fitness devices, according to HDM.

Despite all of the data Watson can access, Brickmeier says the artificial intelligence technology is “constantly ingesting new information about latest and greatest treatments in oncology.”

And as Watson continues to learn about better cancer treatments, so do employers.

“All employers are really interested in the health and welfare of their employees and their family members,” Brickmeier says. “It’s important to productivity and business. There’s a moral imperative.”

With Watson, the goal is to get employees the best possible treatment initially to keep cost and quality balanced, she says. Analytics and big data shift oncology care to a data-driven model, she says, rather than trial and error.

Many employers are seeing healthcare costs skyrocket — according to a survey out by Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., 54% of 3,000 U.S. employers polled are paying at least 5% more for employee medical insurance this year, with nearly a quarter of companies paying at least 10% — and can’t afford that trial-and-error method.

See also: Companies move toward self-insurance as healthcare rates increase

Even a large company like IBM, which employs more than 377,000 people, offers a self-insured medical plan that the majority of employees are enrolled in to curb rising healthcare costs. While the base costs of Watson’s oncology suite are built into the plan, employees do pay a fee for the genomics testing, which is conducted by medical laboratory company Quest Diagnostics.

Brickmeier says the company is also in talks with its HMOs to build in Watson to their coverage.

“They’re going to learn more about it,” she says.

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