IBM’s Watson computer may have wowed NC State students observing the “Jeopardy!” winner’s prowess in September, but wait until they see it diagnose their medical ailments. That could be one of the first practical applications of what IBM executives told the students would mark the new era of cognitive computing.
“Do I think Watson is smarter than a human being”? Dan Cerutti, general manager of IBM Watson Commercialization, was asked at The Singularity Summit in New York City, shortly after the NC State demonstration in Raleigh. “I have absolutely no idea,” he told attendees. “I don’t even care. I’m thinking about the practical applications of this technology…we’re not trying to replicate human behavior, we’re trying to solve problems.”
And the complex, multidimensional problem of the U.S. healthcare system is the one IBM has picked. In September it announced a partnership with the health benefits company Wellpoint to develop Watson-based solutions that could help caregiver teams-- not just doctors--identify the most likely diagnosis and treatments for complex cases. Key to this is the technology’s ability to process terabytes of both structured and unstructured data rapidly as well as return evidence-based responses to deceptively simple queries like, “My back hurts, what’s wrong.”
“Imagine having the ability to take in all the information around a patient's medical care -- symptoms, findings, patient interviews and diagnostic studies,” said Sam Nussbaum, M.D., WellPoint's chief medical officer. “Then, imagine using Watson analytic capabilities to consider all of the prior cases, the state-of-the-art clinical knowledge in the medical literature and clinical best practices to help a physician advance a diagnosis and guide a course of treatment. We believe this will be an invaluable resource for our partnering physicians and will dramatically enhance the quality and effectiveness of medical care they deliver to our members."
The partnership expects to pilot solutions early this year, Cerutti said. “Someday, as the technology gets more efficient, maybe we’ll all have a baby Watson.”
Cutting Down Re-admissions
Seton Healthcare Family, a 31-hospital network in central Texas, is piloting similar content analytics technology to help healthcare providers and payers improve patient care while lowering costs. Seton is exploring whether the technology, called IBM Content and Predictive Analytics for Healthcare, can mine unstructured data like physician notes for warning signs of preventable re-admissions. The combination of natural language processing with predictive analysis should reveal trends and themes like how well a patient follows medication instructions, or the problems she has finding transportation, explained Ryan Leslie, VP of analytics and healthcare economics at Seton.
Seton expects to complete its pilot phase this month and be able to determine its next steps with the program. “We’re very optimistic, Leslie told IMR. “The majority of data in our system, as well as in all providers and hospital systems, is unstructured. This unlocks that data—it’s giving us a window into things we haven’t been able to see before.”
Retiring Dr. House?
Meanwhile, IBM and Nuance Communications are one year into a multi-year research initiative to assist diagnosis and patient treatment by combining Watson technology with Nuance’s voice and clinical language solutions. The two companies expect to realize the first commercial offerings from their collaboration this year or next.
Columbia University Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine are contributing their medical expertise to the IBM/Nuance effort. Herbert Chase, M.D., a professor of clinical medicine in biomedical informatics at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons and a consultant to the Watson project, told IMR that he and his colleagues “almost universally agree that Watson’s ‘differential diagnosis’ suggestions will shorten the time from symptoms to correct diagnosis. This is especially true of the less common conditions. In short, we remain enthusiastic about Watson’s joining the team (and putting tv Dr. House out of business).”
“When Watson traveled to NC State in September to challenge some daring Poole College of Management students in a trivia battle,” blogged BioSciences Management Initiative executive director Richard Kouri, “it effortlessly defeated each one. Its extensive knowledge amounting to about 15,000 books is a clear indicator of the potential of machines and computers to store and recall data at any given moment, providing incredible value in aiding professionals. IBM’s hopes are that Watson will bring this kind of precision data and aid to the healthcare industry.”
Some people say that computers before Watson were nothing but big calculators. Welcome to the age of the cognitive computer.
Innovation Management Report, Editor