Manipal Hospitals, India’s third largest hospital chain, will use International Business Machines Corp.’s cognitive computing platform Watson to help its doctors offer better cancer care and treatment, marking the first-of-its kind partnership where a new-age technology will be used to address a social issue in the country.

Both Manipal Hospitals and IBM believe that the partnership will offer the best possible treatment for cancer, a disease that kills nearly 700,000 people every year in the country.

Considering India has only one oncologist for 1,600 patients, compared to one for 100 patients in the US, assistance from an intelligent technology platform like Watson could cut down the time to treat cancer patients.

“This is a watershed moment not just for IBM in India but for the healthcare sector in the country," said Vanitha Narayanan, managing director of IBM India Pvt. Ltd. “Simply because it is the first time cognitive computing is being used in healthcare in the country."

Under the five-year partnership between billionaire Ranjan Pai-owned Manipal and IBM, beginning next summer, a cancer patient at a Manipal hospital will have the choice of getting treated by either an oncologist directly or being put under Watson-assisted evidence-based treatment.

IBM claims that Watson can offer a diagnosis based on over 15 million pages of medical content and patient data from across the world, making it an “able humble assistant to doctors".

A patient’s medical records will be scanned and, based on historical patient records, a doctor will be able to offer diagnosis, using an iPad.

Manipal is expected to announce a pricing for Watson-assisted treatment early next year.

“We don’t want to make it the Rolls Royce or Mercedes of cancer treatment," said Ajay Bakshi, managing director and chief executive officer at Manipal Health Enterprises, which manages 16 hospitals in the country under the Manipal Hospitals brand. “We are still in the midst of working out the pricing for this service, but for sure, it will be very affordable."

“For cancer patients, this partnership aims to offer the best and most affordable treatment as cancer is one of the most complex diseases and many a time a second or third opinion is needed. Using Watson, our doctors can rely on diagnosis based on millions of texts of medical content," Bakshi said.

For IBM and Manipal, as the service is being offered under “software as a service" model, the partnership could lead to an increase in revenue, though managements of both companies declined to quantify the revenue uptick.

IBM has been struggling to generate more money from Watson, although the management at the New York-based tech giant expects to generate at least $10 billion in business from selling its supercomputing system to clients.

One of the reasons, according to some experts, behind IBM’s struggle to monetize Watson, is that there are not many reference case studies.

“At this point in time, the market is still in its infancy and service providers need to start educating the market on the implications," said Thomas Reuner, managing director at IT outsourcing firm HfS Research.

Although the government is yet to formulate a policy on patient safety records, Manipal said that it will own the patient’s medical records and Watson will only use the records to offer better diagnosis.