IBM Supercomputer Could Revolutionize Healthcare

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Remember Watson, the supercomputer that trounced Jeopardy superchampion Ken Jennings a few years ago? It was obvious even then that IBM’s long-term goals for Watson went beyond competing on game shows.

On Friday, IBM presented the world with three healthcare decision-support apps. Doug Henschen, executive editor at InformationWeek, reports, “The three new applications include one for recommending cancer-treatment options and two for reviewing and authorizing treatments and related health-insurance claims. They are the first examples of what IBM describes as a next-generation cognitive computing that has the potential to change healthcare, and IBM promises it’s just the beginning, as IBM and several partners are planning many more applications.”

Although Watson’s capabilities will expand beyond healthcare, Manoj Saxena, general manager of IBM Watson Solutions, said the team wanted a challenge, and chronic care and cancer fit the bill. He said, “We didn’t choose it because it was easy. We chose it because it has the most meaning and impact on society.”

Interactive Care Insights for Oncology, the cancer-related application, was developed in partnership with New York’s Memorial-Sloan Kettering (MSK). How is it different from prior-generation decision-support tools?

Easy, those involved say. “It keeps learning.”  It also refuses to be “brittle and static” or “deterministic.” Instead, Watson is “probabilistic,” giving “you a degree of confidence in various choices based on the specific circumstances of the patient,” Stephen Gold, worldwide director of marketing for IBM Watson, said.

Henschen writes, “It incorporates the latest symptoms and test results on individual patients and also the latest medical research and clinical-trial outcomes. Over the last year, Watson has been trained on more than 600,000 pieces of medical evidence and two million pages of text from 42 medical journals and clinical trials in the field of oncology. Sloan-Kettering has added details on 1,500 lung-cancer cases, training the technology to interpret physicians’ notes, lab results, and clinical research on specialized treatments based on the genetics of tumors.”

Chief of Sloan-Kettering’s Thoracic Oncology Service Dr. Mark Kris said, “There has been an explosion in medical research, and doctors can’t possibly keep up.” This application, which was demonstrated on an iPad, gives them immediate access to the latest information and research.

Like a patient’s chart, the physician will enter notes and new symptoms. After the patient consultation, the doctor expands on this info by entering lab-test results and patient records. Then, using touch navigation, he can “browse the latest symptoms and test results. The decision support is delivered as a prioritized list of recommended tests and treatment regimens together with confidence scores and links to supporting research.”

For example, say a patient has a genetic marker. In normal situations, this probably wouldn’t impact a doctor’s decision to proceed upon a traditional treatment course. However, suppose recent research concluded that this genetic marker renders the treatment course ineffective. The app would alert the doctor to this research.

The other two apps, WellPoint Interactive Care Guide and Interactive Care Reviewer, were developed in partnership with U.S. health-insurance network WellPoint. The apps “are designed to help payers and providers, respectively, to quickly review claims and pre-authorizations and either approve or flag treatments as either appropriate or out-of-step with the latest, evidence-based treatment options.” The apps were imparted with 25,000 test-case scenarios and 1,500 live cases, with additional knowledge being accrued every day.

“The key benefit is expected to be faster review times for pre-authorizations, moving away from faxes, and phone calls to evidence-based decisions,” Henschen writes.

What is your opinion of Watson? What are the possibilities you see for this technology in the future? How could Watson revolutionize your healthcare system?

-by Pete Fernbaugh

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