HIMSS 2017: IBM CEO says ‘cognitive era’ in healthcare has begun

HIMSS 2017 in Orlando opened with IBM President and CEO Ginni Rometty proclaiming the advent of what she calls the “cognitive era” in healthcare, encouraging clinicians and IT to aggressively pursue and accept new technologies.

Rometty said healthcare is at an “important moment” of transformation, with the ability for many pieces to be changed by new cognitive systems that learn on their own while facilitating, not replacing, clinician and healthcare professionals’ expertise. Her goal with the speech, she said, was to convince the standing-room only crowd of IT professionals that a) this cognitive healthcare technology “can change almost everything about healthcare,” b) health systems and providers will have to make key data architecture decisions within the next two years, and c) this is an opportunity for the industry.

“Cognitive as an era could usher in what people call a golden age, but that’s if we shape it wisely,” Rometty said. “I also believe healthcare can be the leader for the world in showing what it means to shape an era wisely.”

This isn’t consumer-level artificial intelligence (AI), she said, and it’s not exactly new: Rometty said IBM has long been working with technology like this. Its applications to healthcare, however, should be built by and for healthcare professionals, along with being cloud-based (like IBM’s own Watson program) and an open platform.

By open, Rometty clarified she’s not talking about providers giving up the data they view an asset. She repeatedly said “the insights are yours” after these cognitive systems lead to this new level of clinical decision support.

The idea of AI strongly informing a clinicians’ decision may be alarming to some, including those in the IT field who worry about jobs being eliminated with new technology. Rometty said every new era brings changes to jobs, so she encouraged IT professionals not to fight advancements, but instead get trained in new skills and help build this new world.

“This cognitive world will be a healthier world. It will be more secure. It will, in the end, be less wasteful. It will be more productive, more personalized. And in the end, it’s a fairer, more diverse and more just world,” Rommety said.

In the question-and-answer session following her speech, she also cautioned healthcare professionals that they may soon be expected to incorporate this new technology into care delivery. The change shouldn't lead to job losses, she said, though at a later session with reporters, HIMSS North America Board Chair Michael Zaroukian, MD, PhD, said how cognitive computation could affect employment in healthcare is a mystery.

"I'm not actually worried about massive layoffs, but I am curious about which jobs will go away, how people who are currently in those jobs need to continue with their curiosity and learning and growing and how do organizations like HIMSS help them anticipate and get ready for the next step," he said.