Paging Dr. Watson . . .

Watson, the IBM supercomputer, generated world interest in 2011 when it competed on Jeopardy against former champions of the famous TV game show and won the first prize reward of $1 million.  With access to 200 million pages of structured and unstructured content consuming four terabytes of disk storage, Watson performed without having access to the Internet.  Ever since IBM’s Big Blue beat Gary Kasparov in 1997 IBM has doubled down on its passion for developing technology that seeks to mirror the capabilities of the human mind.

Now that passion is taking Watson into the hospital and physician office. A February 11, 2013 article in Wired Magazine UK, IBM’s Watson is better at diagnosing cancer than human doctors, describes how IBM is partnering with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and Wellpoint to make Watson available (i.e., for a fee) to any hospital or clinic seeking its input on oncology cases, including proposed treatment protocols that seek to minimize cost.

The big advantage Watson has over human doctors is its ability to absorb and analyze enormous quantities of data – and then make that knowledgebase more accessible and more affordable.  As example, according to Sloan-Kettering, only 20% of the knowledge doctors use in diagnosing patients relies on trial-based evidence.  But it would take at least 160 hours of reading a week to keep pace with all of the medical knowledge being published – and that doesn’t include the time it takes to determine how to apply that knowledge in practice. Watson’s successful diagnosis rate for lung cancer is 90 percent, compared to 50 percent for human doctors.

This subject-matter reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, in which he tackles the subject of rapid cognition: how the human mind processes environmental stimuli and compares, contrasts and analyzes that stimuli against the billions of elements of data that comprise individual experiences comprising our conscious and unconscious memories.  Watson’s ability to replicate that capability is still a long way off.  But the progress already made is fascinating.

While fascinating, practical application of technological advancements in healthcare are often challenged by skepticism. How much of that challenge is created by the natural human resistance to change, how much results from not understanding the new technology – and how much is based upon previous experiences that demonstrate the risks of adopting technology before it is fully proven – is hard to know.

A lot of faith is being put into technology as the silver bullet to address the healthcare cost crisis. When you read something like what IBM is accomplishing with Watson you want to jump on that bandwagon.  When you spend an afternoon with clinicians that share real life stories of how their ability to deliver care is being impeded by technology that was supposed to make them more efficient and productive – well, not so much.


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