For healthcare finance, the answer is: Watson?

An IBM supercomputer called Watson absolutely mopped the floor against the two most winningest contestants in the history of "Jeopardy!" The device, represented by a swirling circular avatar and speaking in a pleasant though anodyne male voice, demonstrated a mind-boggling command not only of odd facts, but the ability to analyze them and arrive at the right answer in milliseconds. Watson dominated two exhibition games against Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, outscoring them by more than a three-to-one margin.

Doing as well as they did on Jeopardy opened new doors for Jennings and Rutter, and the same has occurred for Watson. A day after the tournament concluded, it was announced the computer would be used in conjunction with a firm called Nuance Communications and the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons to assist physicians in their decision-making processes.

"Watson has the potential to help doctors reduce the time needed to evaluate and determine the correct diagnosis for a patient," said Columbia clinical medicine professor Herbert Chase. He and others in the field noted that a device like Watson could prove infinitely helpful in the practice of medicine, where clinicians have to juggle facts and analysis virtually every minute of the day.

However, that means Watson's usefulness in the healthcare realm should not be restricted solely to the practice of medicine. It could be used to analyze the millions of claims submitted to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services every day, quickly rooting out suspicious ones or patterns in real time. Watson could also be deployed by providers to analyze the use of medical supplies and pharmaceuticals to help cut costs.

Neither of these applications are as sexy as helping doctors make crucial decisions, but they are the daily nuts-and-bolts of healthcare operations. Knowing that a device with the analytical abilities of 10,000 MBAs and CPAs and no financial or political agendas to interfere with its reporting could bring peace of mind to many CFOs. And that's not trivial at all. - Ron