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What Is The Future Of Health Care? Watson Has An Answer

By Christian Torres

April 30th, 2012, 8:47 AM

IBM’s Watson frequently had the right answer when the supercomputer competed on Jeopardy last year. Now, the nation’s second largest health insurer is hoping it will have the right diagnosis and treatment for patients.

Photo by IBM

Representatives from IBM and Wellpoint discussed their developing partnership at a Friday Capitol Hill event. The tech company aims to make Watson useful to the health care industry, and Wellpoint believes it can help doctors practice evidence-based medicine.

The actual how-to part is still being worked out, but Watson could, for example, provide a list of likely diagnoses, or a list of potential treatments, when given a list of symptoms. Physicians and patients would remain in charge of any decisions, but Watson does have “the potential to transform health care delivery,” said Elizabeth Bingham, WellPoint’s vice president of health IT strategy.

Medical evidence doubles every five years, and “it’s not humanly possible for doctors to keep up with all of that” information, she added. Watson can quickly scan the latest medical literature and keep physicians current. In theory, the supercomputer would funnel data from its various sources and, among other services, provide physicians with a list of treatments ranked by effectiveness. It could also access individual patient health records to personalize recommendations, Bingham said. And, it could “help steer physicians toward tests that are worth doing, and toward treatments that are likely to be successful,” said David Kerr, an IBM corporate strategist. While Watson would not consider or rank treatments by cost, it could give doctors and patients the relevant price information.

Meanwhile, on a population basis, Watson could integrate this information into public health databases to help identify pockets of illness. Down the road, Watson could even become a tool for comparative effectiveness research, said Kerr.

WellPoint hopes that Watson will improve the quality and efficiency of care, as well as reduce the variability seen across providers. But don’t expect to see Watson in the physician’s office very soon. The insurer currently hopes to incorporate the system into oncology practices at the end of this year, while other physician specialties could be involved in a separate, small pilot by the end of next year.

Watson already has a place, however, in WellPoint’s administration. Staff members are using the system to consider authorization requests made by doctors, and as Bingham described, that usually “requires a lot of manpower, a lot of work” – but it has been made much easier by Watson.

4 Responses to “What Is The Future Of Health Care? Watson Has An Answer”

  1. Dan says:

    Watson can’t be any worse than the morons we have making today’s health care decisions. For me? I’d pick Watson to make all of my health care decisions over my current PCP and specialists any day of the week! It’s a no brainer!

  2. I am very happy that there is an application for Watson in the healthcare field. However, I would offer a word of caution. Computers are fed information (correct or incorrect) and if there is an ulterio motive such as to indescriminately reduce utilization then the Watson program will be compromised and incorrect denials for care will be issued. Ultimately, delays in service and compromised medical care will hurt and then who or what do you complain to. Technology is moving way too fast and the ramifications of implementing a Watson based system and not having any clear legal recourse could cause a tidel wave of medical access problems.

  3. Dan says:

    So we should continue to have the current idiots and dopes in control of the big health care decisions? Forgive me, but Watson would be a refreshing change for the better. The fact of the matter is, IT CAN’T GET ANY WORSE! We have MDs and PhDs in health care that graduated from some of the best schools in the nation and look where we are. These are supposed to be the brightest and smartest? Yeah, right! Give me a break! Morons!

  4. Nancy says:

    My medical care is excellent, in part because I’m invested in the conversation and the outcome. I hope Watson is able to provide quality information to help better inform treatment decisions but not expecting, nor do I want, Star Trek medicine.

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