IBM Workers Get an Assist From Watson to Fight Cancer

By Andie Burjek

Oct. 20, 2016

WF_1017_ONLINE_IBMCancer__articleimageIBM is offering its Watson supercomputer services as an employee benefit to find the best cancer treatment options. It will be available beginning in January 2017 to any employee eligible for the company’s self-insured medical plan, IBM said.

The services include Watson for Oncology, which gives doctors personalized, evidence-based treatment recommendations; Watson for Genomics, which analyzes a patient’s tumor, creates a genomic profile and identifies possible cancer causing mutations; and Watson for Clinical Trial Matching, which matches patients to the appropriate clinical trials.

This is a change from Watson’s typical health care clientele, which is comprised of hospitals, universities and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Working for IBM we do have a very strong advantage of having access to some leading innovations that are available. Working within our business, we decided we would be the first employer in the world to offer this service as part of our benefits program,” said Barbara Brickmeier, vice president of employee benefits at IBM.

This could be useful to employees as a supplement rather than a replacement to the traditional means of fighting cancer, said Jonny Imerman, CEO and founder of Imerman Angels, a company that connects cancer patients with cancer survivors, in an email interview.

“Using tech to make a better diagnosis, possible treatment options, finding the right medical care — there’s always opportunity to do [the cancer fight] better,” he said.

He also added that most companies can do a lot more for employees facing cancer. There’s room for improvement, especially with awareness. “Bringing in options like Aflac for additional coverage — 100 percent coverage in many cases — is a great idea and place to start for companies. They need to make employees aware such options are available,” Imerman said.

At IBM, employees have to pay for services and lab fees associated with the genetic tests, but offering Watson as part of a benefits program makes this cost to employees low, said Brickmeier.

It also, in the long run, will result in better outcomes, Brickmeier said. It’s the right thing to do for patient health, she added, and to get people the right treatment, “which will eliminate a lot of the waste in the system with trial and error.”

IBM also wanted to set up a process to make it simple for employees, she said, especially because patients going through cancer diagnoses can be mentally and physically overwhelmed. IBM is working with the third-party company, Best Doctors, a global medical information services company, to simplify the process for patients.

Best Doctors does a clinical review for a patient, collects their medical records and lab results and talks to their doctor to gather data. They also use Watson, in appropriate cases, as another source of data. They then create a treatment plan to discuss with the patient and their doctor.

“We want to transform health care, because we’re a technology and analytics company and we have the ability to do this. So we want to bring this to our employees as well,” said Brickmeier. “We think it’s our responsibility.”

Andie Burjek is a Workforce associate editorComment below, or email at Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

Andie Burjek is an associate editor at

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