Neena Kapur | The IT Ambassador
Published: Monday, October 22, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 22, 2012 07:10
With the upcoming elections, healthcare has been a hot topic of debate. While Governor Romney and President Obama are struggling to propose a feasible and effective solution to the currently dismal state of the US healthcare system, engineers at IBM think they have the solution for issues that doctors face every day.
Meet Dr. Watson, the newest member of the medical community. Dr. Watson, though, didn’t graduate from medical school — he came from the labs of IBM.
The world first met the supercomputer Watson when it made its debut on “Jeopardy!” and proceeded to destroy the show’s best human contestants. Watson demonstrated awesome computational power, processing the language of the question asked, identifying its context of and effectively delivering the correct solution in the correct format.
Now, IBM thinks that Watson can aid doctors in diagnosing patients’ conditions. Watson can go through 200 million pages of information and provide a response in less than three seconds. Why not have it sift through millions of medical records to determine the kind of cancer a patient has, based on inputted symptoms? Diagnostic error results in a significant number of malpractice lawsuits. Watson could help change this.
Though clinical decision support systems (CDSS) have been around for decades, Watson surpasses them in sophistication and capability. Previous generations of CDSS worked in the way Google does — the user would need to manually sift through the results to find relevant data. Watson changes things. As demonstrated on “Jeopardy!,” and many test runs in the IBM lab, Watson has the capability to not only process and search for the solution to a question, but also interpret the results.
The implications of Watson’s potential applications in the realm of healthcare are numerous from an economic standpoint. IBM sees Watson helping doctors and patients reduce the number of tests and treatments necessary for diagnosis, therefore saving up to $750 million annually.
A current obstacle in Watson’s application relates to the accessibility of medical records in medical communities. In many hospitals, a large percentage of decisions are not grounded in already published data, but rather previous medical records and processes that, due to privacy concerns, are not released to the general medical community. At this point in time, entrepreneurs and healthcare providers are working to create databases with more concrete evidence and records.
There are many objections to the implementation of Watson, and rightfully so — many of come from doctors themselves. As revolutionary as Watson is, the possibility that doctors may grow dependent on it could harm, rather than help, the medical community. Just as we have become overly reliant on using GPS devices in our cars, the convenience of Watson could dissuade doctors from maintaining their own mastery of the subject. This is certainly a valid concern, but it must be understood that the purpose of Watson is to be a doctor’s aid, not a doctor. Doctors would still identify symptoms, communicate with patients and provide treatments.
Recently, IBM partnered with WellPoint insurance company and the Sloan−Kettering Cancer Center. The company is expected to offer Watson commercially to hospitals within the next few years. Implementing Watson will speed up the process, and increase the accuracy of patient diagnosis and will push the medical community to create effective databases to enable both doctors and machines to more easily access previous medical records and information. Though your physician in the white lab coat will be the one listening to your heartbeat and pointing a light in your eye when you are feeling ill, Dr. Watson could be helping to find a solution behind the scenes.
Neena Kapur is a sophomore majoring in international relations and computer science. She can be reached at Neena.Kapur@tufts.edu.