It’s Alive: Watson Deployed for Cancer Diagnostics & Treatment

Watson, the namesake of IBM founder Thomas Watson, is a highly sophisticated natural language processor. It’s a computing system designed to analyze the meaning and context of human language.  We did a post on Watson more than a year ago, announcing an agreement between Wellpoint and IBM. The deal was mouth-wateringly commercially-oriented and healthcare applications were the target.

In case you didn’t already know, Watson can legally tie to electronic health records, medical literature, population health data, outcomes data, etc. (most any structured or unstructured information source) “to answer profoundly complex questions” based on its world-beating natural language interface and massively parallel processing capabilities. The good doctor can take your question, instantly identify and digest the equivalent of about 200 million pages of relevant data, analyze all of it appropriately and provide a precise answer in less than three seconds. It is easily updated and therefore, constantly learning. Furthermore, it can tie back to inventory and distribution systems (i.e. game-changing supply chain and procurement applications are waiting in the wings) making it a high value “assist” in most any decision context and a game winning goal for emerging care networks like Walmart’s or other scaled operators.

According to a story that just appeared in Forbes, Watson’s first major assignment has been announced. Watson will be a combination specialist in lung cancer diagnostics and expert in health insurance utilization management. “Peas and carrots” comes to mind. This lung cancer/health insurance combo application is a natural. IBM, Memorial Sloan-Kettering and WellPoint are partnering to allow hospitals and other healthcare networks to access Watson’s diagnostic and treatment advice via the cloud. Initial customers have already been signed with major players like the Cleveland Clinic indicating it is making the necessary moves to fully deploy in the next few years.

At the press event, WellPoint’s chief medical officer Samuel Nussbaum reminded everyone that when it comes to lung cancer diagnosis and treatment, the current “hit rate” in terms of decision accuracy is only about 50%, while Watson gets it right 90% of the time. That’s huge –for patients and insurers.

This is a major announcement and congratulations are in order to all those involved. Regardless of how circumspect you may be –or how quickly you might cite this development (and others like it) as job killers– it’s well past time to come to grips with the fact that technologies like these, including surgical robots and other smart machines, will become increasing integral to the practice of medicine, regardless of how many payors there are or who they are.

Source: Forbes and various Wires

—Tom Finn

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