Falling Victim to the Watson Effect

STAT News reporters Casey Ross and Ike Swetlitz published an investigative report stating that IBM’s Watson for Oncology supercomputer isn’t living up to the lofty expectations IBM created for it. By examining Watson for Oncology’s use, marketing, and performance in hospitals across the world, as well as interviewing doctors, IBM executives, artificial intelligence experts, and others familiar with the product’s technology and rollout, Ross and Swetlitz confirmed that its “flaws are getting exposed on the front lines of care by doctors and researchers who say that the system, while promising in some respects, remains undeveloped.”

Given the hype around IBM Watson, starting with its debut on Jeopardy! in 2011, many are surprised it has fallen short when it comes to assisting the healthcare ecosystem. Yet, this is a classic cautionary tale. Hype is technology’s biggest enemy. Health technology is riddled with buzzwords, and headlines can set good technology up for failure. Even when healthcare organizations have the chops to become a technology giant, many succumb to what we call “the Watson effect.” Named after IBM Watson, this occurs when vague stories in the press push an organization’s message so far ahead of its ability to deliver that even advanced technologies disappoint when compared to the impossible benchmark that readers (and buyers) expect. At its core, it’s a misalignment of expectations versus reality.

Here are some thoughts about how health tech organizations can avoid falling victim to the Watson effect. 

1. Don’t tout your product’s effectiveness before you’ve measured it

Peter Greulich, former IBM brand manager told STAT News that IBM, “turned the marketing engine loose without controlling how to build and construct a product.” Getting marketing traction is important to recruiting investors and clients — your bottom line depends on it. Most organizations don’t intentionally make false claims to sell products, but it’s important for marketers to help our organizations reduce the ambiguity associated with the products. Do not inflate stakeholders’ impressions of the technology’s current capabilities or paint an unrealistic picture. Marketing should support the business strategy, not drive it.

2. Ambiguity drives misaligned expectations

STAT News stated, “IBM claims that Watson for Oncology, through artificial intelligence, can sift through data to generate new insights and identify, as an IBM sales rep put it, ‘even new approaches’ to cancer care.” An organization’s team of sales representatives and marketers need to understand and articulate the nuances. By addressing the specific needs of target audience rather than using hype and buzzwords, savvy sales reps and marketers can help elevate an organization and drive growth — without falling victim to industry ambiguity.

3. Third party validation is essential

Watson Health general manager Deborah DiSanzo told STAT that patients report Watson for Oncology gave them “peace of mind.” Delivering an effective product goes beyond giving patients peace of mind. Health tech buyers and influencers want customer validation and concrete data that a product delivers on its sales message. Although regulatory agencies don’t require a clinical trial be conducted before selling a product to a hospital, HIT organizations that allow researchers to utilize and study their solution they will gain enormous credibility — and potentially customers and investors. Marketers should be a voice in calling for this type of data and customer validation.


It’s an exciting time for healthcare marketers as technology continues to advance the healthcare industry in ways that are delivering remarkable results today and laying the foundation for the promise of the future. As organizations introduce new solutions with the promise of delivering quality patient care at a fraction of the cost, or ensuring doctors can return to treating patients instead of sifting through data, let’s learn from the lessons of IBM Watson. Stop the hype cycle.

September 19, 2017
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