Rethinking Healthcare

It might not know U.S. cities, but can Watson improve healthcare?

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IBM's supercomputer defeated Jeopardy's finest. Easy. Now, onto healthcare informatics. There're a lot of data out there, and Watson's Jeopardy-winning skills could help.

IBM’s supercomputer Watson conquered its human competition, scoring $77,147 during the 3-day Jeopardy! challenge that ended Wednesday.

(It even won the $1 million grand prize after an incorrect ‘U.S. Cities’ final Jeopardy response of “What is Toronto?????”)

Now what? Well, there’re a lot of data out there, and Watson’s Jeopardy-winning skillz could be perfectly tasked.

During round 2, Watson project leader David Ferrucci talked a little about future applications for health. Indeed, in the long list of IBM research projects, Advanced Healthcare Informatics is notably bulleted: “Work on extracting important HealthCare entities (e.g., drugs, diseases, procedures) from Clinical documents (e.g., textual progress notes).”

That is, information sifting and retrieval. Some ways to apply Watson’s tools in medicine:

  • If a doctor doesn’t know a symptom or disease, Watson could help diagnose patients by scouring libraries-worth of medical literature that doctors don’t have time to keep up with. (Not that Watson would be the final diagnostician though.)
  • Keep track of mounds of patient records
  • Detect anomalies in medical images missed by the human eye
  • In cardiology, Watson would analyze data to alert doctors to problems like too much digitalis in blood tests or the overuse of diuretics.

And Watson, adds IBM’s Katharine Frase, continues to learn and refine its abilities.

“There's massive production of knowledge, particularly in the biological community, and researchers can't keep up with it," says Oren Etzioni of University of Washington’s Turing Center for investigating language processing, data mining, and the web.

More concretely, IBM has reached a research agreement with Nuance Communications Inc., a provider of speech-recognition technology, to "explore, develop and commercialize" Watson’s capabilities in the healthcare industry. WSJ reports:

IBM researchers are working to apply the system to business uses, such as helping physicians and nurses find answers within huge volumes of information. A doctor considering a patient's diagnosis could use Watson's analytics technology along with Nuance's voice and clinical language understanding offerings to rapidly consider all the related texts, reference materials, prior cases and latest knowledge in medical journals to gain information from more potential sources then previously possible, making the physician more confident in the patient's diagnosis…

"We can transform the way that healthcare professionals accomplish everyday tasks by enabling them to work smarter and more efficiently," says IBM’s John E. Kelly III.

So far, two hospitals have signed up. Columbia University Medical Center and University of Maryland School of Medicine will be the sites of Watson’s first real-world tests outside of IBM labs and Jeopardy.

IBM and Nuance expect their first commercial offerings to be available in 18 to 24 months.

Image: IBM

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure