Health IT

As Rometty prepares to open HIMSS, M.D. Anderson walks away from Watson

A giant elephant just entered the Valencia Ballroom at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida.

A giant elephant just entered the Valencia Ballroom at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida.

Monday morning, IBM Chairman, President and CEO Ginni Rometty will deliver the opening keynote address at HIMSS17. She is expected to announce several new IBM Watson Health initiatives and highlight the role the Watson supercomputer is playing in making healthcare more intelligent.

The annual Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society Conference has become a big deal for Big Blue. It was at HIMSS15 in Chicago that Watson Health launched as IBM acquired Phytel and Explorys. Last year, IBM announced its largest healthcare acquisition to date, its $2.6 billion purchase of Truven Health Analytics, nine days before the official start of HIMSS16 in Las Vegas.

IBM probably won’t make that much of a splash this year, but there will be news. Just don’t expect Rometty to mention the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center unless she really, really goes off script.

Sunday,’s Matthew Herper threw some major shade over this part of the Sunshine State by reporting that the world-reknowned Houston cancer institution was backing away from a once-celebrated partnership with IBM Watson. After spending at least $62.1 million on the Oncology Expert Advisor collaboration since 2012, M.D. Anderson reportedly froze the effort late last year.

“When it was appropriate to do so, the project was placed on hold,” an M.D. Anderson spokesperson told Forbes. “As a public institution, we decided to go out to the marketplace for competitive bids to see where the industry has progressed.”

The decision followed a November report from University of Texas auditors that was highly critical of the procurement process for Oncology Expert Advisor clinical advising system. The system, according to the audit report, “would ingest data from a variety of sources and use IBM Watson artificial intelligence technology to offer care advice and match patients with clinical trials,” with the goal of improving cancer care on a global scale.

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While the auditors looked only at six no-bid contracts that M.D. Anderson signed, they did not find any technical problems that were IBM’s doing. But they did say that the cancer institution did not update OEA to make the technology compatible with M.D. Anderson’s new Epic Systems electronic health record and that the system “is not in clinical use” as of September 2016.

An IBM spokesperson told Forbes that the OEA pilot was “a success, and likely could have been deployed had M.D. Anderson chosen to take it forward.”

Still, all Watson-M.D. Anderson contracts have expired and one of the world’s most recognized brands in cancer care is no longer working with the high-profile cognitive computing system. That can’t be something Rometty wants to discuss at HIMSS, can it?