4 reasons MD Anderson put IBM Watson on hold

In October 2013, MD Anderson and IBM announced the development of Oncology Expert Advisor, a clinical decision support technology powered by IBM Watson. However, this project has since been put on hold.

A recent analysis by the Wall Street Journal investigated the benched project, including looking into a 48-page audit conducted by the University of Texas System Audit Office. The audit does not evaluate Oncology Expert Advisor's scientific or functional capabilities; instead, it focuses on its management and technology issues.

Oncology Expert Advisor is not in clinical use at MD Anderson. However, an IBM spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal the pilot was "a success, and likely could have been taken forward had MD Anderson chosen to do so." The system's lung cancer recommendations agreed with experts 90 percent of the time, according to staff member interviews in the audit.

Here are four things to know about why the project was put on hold.

1. One of the main challenges the audit cites is that the Oncology Expert Advisor's focus changed multiple times. The initial project focused on leukemia; however, it later shifted to lung cancer. Rob Merkel, general manager for oncology and genomics at IBM Watson Health, told the Wall Street Journal the focus changed because the project was in an "evaluation phase" at the time.

2. Another challenge for MD Anderson arose due to EHRs. The Oncology Expert Advisor was initially trained on MD Anderson's old EHR system, which was changed during the course of the project. The IBM product no longer works with MD Anderson's EHR system, and since its data has not yet been integrated with the new system, some of its information is outdated.

3. The Oncology Expert Advisor has not been piloted at additional hospitals, even though this step was included in a contract with PricewaterhouseCoopers. MD Anderson paid PwC $23 million to create a business plan for the system. Lynda Chin, the former chair of genomic medicine at MD Anderson, told the Wall Street Journal that partner hospitals showed a "lack of engagement or interest."

4. In total, the project cost MD Anderson more than $62.1 million. This figure includes payments made to external firms for planning, project management and development for the Oncology Expert Advisor product, along with an initial MD Anderson and IBM contract of $2.4 million and $39 million in contract renewal fees.

MD Anderson is actively looking to other software contractors to potentially replace IBM's role in the project, having sent out a request for proposals that closed last month. The request specified that previous vendors could also submit proposals, but IBM declined to tell the Wall Street Journal whether it had submitted a bid.

"When it was appropriate to do so, the project was placed on hold," an MD Anderson spokesperson told Forbes in an article published last month. "As a public institution, we decided to go out to the marketplace for competitive bids to see where the industry has progressed."

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