IBM's Watson Could Usher New Era in Medicine

The game show-playing supercomputer Watson is expected to do much more than make a name for itself on Jeopardy.

IBM's computer could very well herald a whole new era in medicine.

That's the vision of IBM engineers and Dr. Eliot Siegel , professor and vice chairman of the University of Maryland School of Medicine's department of diagnostic radiology.

Siegel and his colleagues at the University of Maryland, as well as at Columbia University Medical Center, are working with IBM engineers to figure out the best ways for Watson to work hand-in-hand with physicians and medical specialists.

Siegel, who refers to the computer not as the champ of Jeopardy but as "Dr. Watson," says he expects the computer, which can respond to questions with answers instead of data and spread sheets, to radically improve doctors' care of their patients.

"There is a major challenge in medicine today," Siegel told Computerworld. "There's an incredible amount of information in a patient's medial record. It's in the form of abbreviations and short text. There's a tremendous amount of redundancy and a lot of it is written in a free-form fashion like a blog or text."

"As a physician or radiologist, it might take me 10 or 20 or 60 minutes or more just to understand what's in a patient's medical record," he said.

Within a year, Siegel hopes that "Dr. Watson" will change all of that. Watson is expected to be able to take a patient's electronic medical records, digest them, summarize them for the doctor and point out any causes for concern, highlighting anything abnormal and warning about potential drug interactions.

"It offers the potential to usher in a whole new generation of medicine," Siegel said. "If all Dr. Watson did was allow me to organize electronic medical records and bring to my attention what's most important and summarize it, that would be incredibly valuable to me."

"Even small things that Watson can do will change the way I, and my colleagues, practice medicine," he said.

Richard F. Doherty, research director of the analysis firm Envisioneering Group, said he's excited to have a computer organize his medical history for his physician.

"That sounds excellent," Doherty said. "I think we've all been through the situation of filling out forms for new doctors and then they don't have the time to read through it all, and they just say, 'What? You have a sore throat?' Having Watson help attend to our needs sounds like a great application of [the computer]."

But organizing and summarizing patient histories isn't all Watson is expected to do.

Siegel, who also works with the National Cancer Institute, said he's hoping that Watson will also be able to take patient and treatment information from hundreds, if not thousands, of hospitals and pull it all together.

Then when a doctor is considering treating a patient with a particular drug or treatment, they first can ask Watson how that treatment worked on patients with similar diagnoses and backgrounds.

"Watson can ingest information efficiently and rapidly," Siegel said. "It'll have an encyclopedic knowledge and suggest diagnostic and therapeutic possibilities based on databases much larger than one physician can possibly hold in his head.

"This technology brings a potential to have a renaissance of medical diagnosis," he said. "It offers the potential for us in the next five or 10 years to routinely deploy computers when working with our patients."

Jennifer Chu-Carroll , an IBM researcher on the Watson project, said the computer system is a perfect fit for the health care field.

"There's so much electronic information out there and it's projected to continue to grow," Chu-Carroll said. "Nobody can possibly ingest all that information. Without a tool, there's no way to leverage it."

She also said she believes that at some point Watson will have the speech-recognition capability to actually go into an exam room and listen to a patient talk about their symptoms while it runs through their medical records.

"Think of some version of Watson being a physician's assistant," Chu-Carroll said. "In its spare time, Watson can read all the latest medical journals and get updated. Then it can go with the doctor into exam rooms and listen in as patients tell doctors about their symptoms. It can start coming up with hypotheses about what ails the patient."

She added: "The physician will make the decisions but Watson can help."

Doherty said having a supercomputer that can ingest and analyze loads of data and then answer questions much as a human would could radically change not only medical diagnostics, but also medical research and pandemic recognition and management.

"Spotting trends could save lives and save money," he said. "What humans can't always see, Watson may be able to."

"I think we're on the cusp of a revolution," Doherty said.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com .

Read more about mainframes and supercomputers in Computerworld's Mainframes and Supercomputers Topic Center.

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