IBM Watson Health chief Deborah DiSanzo steps down from post

A former CEO of Philips Healthcare, DiSanzo will move to the strategy team for IBM Cognitive Solutions. (Wikimedia Commons)

The general manager of IBM’s Watson Health unit, Deborah DiSanzo, is stepping down after three years in the position, effective immediately.

DiSanzo is moving to the strategy team for IBM Cognitive Solutions, which encompasses the company’s larger artificial intelligence and blockchain efforts, an IBM spokesperson told FierceMedTech.

Meanwhile, Big Blue’s senior VP of cognitive solutions and IBM Research, John Kelly—who currently oversees the Watson program and its various efforts in fields including healthcare, financial services, education and the internet of things—will cover the vacancy going forward.


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RELATED: Plenty of buzz for AI in healthcare, but are any systems actually using it?

A former CEO of Philips Healthcare, DiSanzo was brought on in September 2015 to lead the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Watson Health division, which saw large investments and was heralded as a possible savior to turn around IBM’s flagging share prices, during a gold rush to unlock the potential of big data.

As general manager, DiSanzo oversaw the acquisitions of medical image management company Merge Healthcare for $1 billion and Truven Health Analytics for $2.6 billion, as well as the securing of the patient engagement-focused Phytel and Cleveland Clinic spinoff Explorys—all told, about $4 billion in aggregate deal value.

In addition, FierceBiotech named DiSanzo one of the most influential people in biopharma, with Watson Health boasting partnerships with companies such as Apple, Johnson & Johnson, Medtronic, Novo Nordisk and Teva, among others.

RELATED: IBM and the VA extend their Watson collaboration in guiding veterans’ cancer treatments

But while Watson’s promises have generated a lot of buzz—including pitches that it could revolutionize cancer care by offering treatment recommendations for over a dozen different diseases after decoding a patient’s medical records—it has largely failed to deliver.

Experts have linked the system’s shortcomings to problems rooted in time-intensive data collection and translation, as well as interoperability concerns. Additionally, a review of IBM documents by Stat News earlier this year found that Watson recommended unsafe and incorrect treatments from time to time.

RELATED: ASCO: IBM presents Watson updates in a handful of studies

Last week, IBM posted its third-quarter earnings (PDF), pointing to what the company described as broad-based growth in Watson Health, while the larger cognitive services division saw revenues drop 5-6%, to $4.1 billion, compared to the same quarter in 2017.

In his remarks, IBM Chief Financial Officer Jim Kavanaugh described gains in Watson Health’s payer, provider, imaging and life sciences areas—including from the June launch of a Watson-powered smartphone app developed with Medtronic to predict the onset of dangerously low blood sugar.

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