The healthcare industry is in the midst of a new era in computing, according to Ginni Rometty, chairman, president and CEO of IBM. Cognitive computing—systems that learn—will profoundly change medicine and the way that care is delivered to patients.

“We’re in a moment where we can actually transform many parts of healthcare,” said Rometty in an opening keynote address on Monday at the HIMSS17 conference in Orlando. “Healthcare will be the industry impacted more than any other,” adding that “cognitive as an era could usher in what people call a Golden Age, but it’s only if we shape it wisely.”

As CEO of IBM since 2012, she has worked to transform the technology behemoth into a cognitive solutions and cloud platform company. Rometty noted that two years ago at HIMSS15, IBM launched Watson Health, the first commercially available cognitive computing capability delivered through the cloud to analyze high volumes of data, understand complex questions posed in natural language, and propose evidence-based answers.

Rometty, who has been with Big Blue since 1981, said that Watson Health is meant to help physicians, researchers, insurers and patients use big data, analytics and mobile technology to achieve better health outcomes, calling the business unit IBM’s “moonshot” in healthcare.

According to Rometty, health IT professionals face three key architecture decisions in the next one to two years—cloud, data and artificial intelligence—that will impact the global healthcare industry over the next two decades.

“You’re going to pick a cloud, you’re going to pick a data platform, and you’re going to pick an AI platform,” she argued. “You’re going to have to have a cloud that is optimized for all this cognitive data.”

IBM is hoping that healthcare organizations tap into this cloud-based data to take previously disparate data sets—structured and unstructured—combining them together to create unique insights.

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“It’s not enough to just think of artificial intelligence or natural language—you need vision, you need deep learning, you need many more algorithms,” said Rometty.

The 105-year-old technology behemoth has bet its future on Watson and its use of natural language processing and machine learning to provide actionable insights from large amounts of unstructured data. In addition, IBM’s Watson Platform for Health Cloud (formerly Watson Health Core cloud platform) is designed to help store, sort and analyze both structured and unstructured data as a service offering.

At HIMSS17, IBM announced expanded capabilities for the Watson Platform for Health Cloud and a specialized Watson Health Consulting Services unit dedicated to helping clients and partners across the healthcare ecosystem capture the business opportunity of cognitive computing in medicine.

“A cloud that is built for big data, built for security and one—by the way—that’s going to have to be hybrid because otherwise, you can’t connect such a wide ecosystem, whether it’s an academic center or a community hospital,” Rometty added. “It’s also got to be an open platform, because this is an industry all about innovation that doesn’t come from one person—it’s about an ecosystem of people.”

When it comes to healthcare innovation, she said that Watson is making ground-breaking discoveries. Case in point: Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, the world's largest neurological disease treatment and research institution, used IBM’s cognitive system to help its scientists identify five genes associated with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) that had never before been linked to the disease.

Overall, Rometty boasted that IBM Watson and its cloud offering is “the AI platform for business” serving 45 countries, 20 industries, nine languages and 1 billion consumers by the end of 2017. In particular, Watson for Oncology, which analyzes the meaning and context of structured and unstructured data in clinical notes and reports, is “rolling out across hospitals in China, India, Thailand and Finland,” she said.

In the area of precision medicine, Rometty argued that Watson can help clinicians quickly sift through this kind of data providing insights on cancer-causing mutations. She pointed to the University of North Carolina’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center as an example of the “great promise” of the cognitive computing era.

60 Minutes did a segment not long ago on this,” Rometty said. “In a thousand (patent) cases, and these were not standard cases, on almost 100 percent of the cases, doctors and Watson matched. But, in 30 percent, Watson found more clinically actionable items. That, to me, is what this is all about.”

Precision medicine in this cognitive era is “just now going to come alive,” she concluded. “It’s mainstream, and it’s here.”

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