IBM, Watson a calculated risk worth betting on

Could the smartest "Jeopardy" contestant of all time soon go to work at a hospital near you?  

You've probably heard about the thrashing that IBM's supercomputer--nicknamed "Watson" after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson--recently gave to two of the show's most heralded champions: Ken Jennings, who in 2004 won 74 consecutive games, and Brad Rutter, who holds Jeopardy's all-time record for money earned with more than $3 million. While certainly impressive, Watson's recent feat could pale in comparison to its ability to transform the delivery of healthcare.

Watson's creators, IBM researchers and other medical experts touched briefly on this potential during a short segment that aired during the show on Tuesday, and in an IBM video.

"You're never going to replace a trained doctor or nurse," Dr. Joseph Jasinski, a member of IBM Research's healthcare and life sciences team said in the video. "But certainly a system like Watson could be a physician's assistant. It could help to check on things: ‘Did you consider this? Did you consider that?'"

Buzz around Watson and healthcare has been building for quite some time. A press announcement released by IBM in December touting the Jeopardy showdown mentioned that Watson's real-world applications were tailor-made for healthcare, among other industries, due to the system's ability to "sift through vast amounts of data and return precise answers." And the Pacific Daily News published an article Feb. 12 maintaining that two notable healthcare problems--deaths due to medical errors and physician shortages--could be addressed through the use of such technology.

"Because of its superior memory and parallel processing capabilities, Watson could examine all medical evidence available in natural language, without resorting to cognitive shortcuts, and minimize bias when making diagnostic decisions," the Daily News stated.

IBM is booked to talk about Watson at its HIMSS11 booth in Orlando. On Feb. 21 at 4 p.m., the company will discuss just such capabilities in a session titled "IBM Watson and Healthcare."

No doubt, those capabilities will be tapped into via an announced expansion of IBM's existing partnership with Nuance Communications, the latter of which is known for its voice solutions and clinical language understanding technology. According to Peter Durlach, Nuance senior vice president for healthcare marketing, the two companies hope to roll a product out within the next 18 to 24 months that harnesses Watson's ability to mine vast amounts of data to give answers that are stack-ranked by confidence to a wide array of questions.

"You've got data about patients that's in different formats. There are different terminologies that are used. Some of it is structured by the [electronic health records]; a lot of it is just narrative dictation that's done by the physicians," Durlach told FierceHealthIT. "If you're really going to move to a model where you're going to say 'What treatments work for this population?' and 'What should I do if I have a limited amount of money to spend on a certain set of patients?'--especially if they move to more of these accountable care models--you've got to be able to mine the data. Otherwise, all you're going to have is this electronic infrastructure for sharing these records. If you can't get the data out of it, so what?"

The proof will be in the pudding when it comes to just how lucrative such an offering could be, Durlach said, adding that if the healthcare community reaps results similar to those displayed on Jeopardy, it would be a "stunning breakthrough."

"It's hard to put a number on it right now. We don't know yet," he said. "But we wouldn't' be doing this, and spending as much time and money on it that we've done so far if we didn't think it had some real upside."

On "Jeopardy" that payoff proved to be $1 million, which was split between two charities. In the real world? The possibilities are endless. - Dan

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