I'm fascinated with the conversation that IBM's Watson computer system's victory on the TV program "Jeopardy!" has opened up regarding the future of medicine. If you missed the matches, the IBM system competed against the game's best performers, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. Watson answered complicated questions filled with literary allusions, puns and wordplay — the sort of things that delight humans but traditionally baffle computers.
So what does this "Jeopardy!" game have to do with the next generation of medicine and health care across the United States? There is a massive amount of medical data regarding both individuals and medicine in general. Some of it is easy to track, but most of it is in "natural language" — the language of our lives, such as the words written by a doctor in your medical chart. Information like this is the hardest for electronic medical records to keep track of.
The challenge that doctors deal with every day is determining how to access and apply all these data to improve patient care. The fact is, an estimated 15 percent of diagnoses are inaccurate or incomplete. Also, with the dizzying amount of medical research being released every day, physicians find it extremely difficult to keep up with the latest thinking from their peers. I am told that approximately 81 percent of doctors average five hours or less per month — or just over an hour a week — reading medical journals.
This combination of limited access to information and little time to digest it can unfortunately create possibilities for fragmented care and potential missteps in diagnosis, resulting in higher medical care costs and a threat to quality. One can see the potential — as much of this data becomes digitized — for doctors to be able to augment their own expertise with an "assistant" that can quickly read and understand massive amounts of information and then provide useful suggestions.
That's where some of the breakthroughs developed for Watson might come into play. Watson's ability to parse ungrammatical statements, interpret puns and deal with ambiguity — human-like traits that helped it to win a TV game show — promise to give it a role in more serious endeavors, such as saving lives. Its capabilities could mark a great leap forward in the long effort to develop intelligent, computer-based assistance for physicians.
Watson could, for example, provide a doctor with tips on alternative diagnoses, recommendations for tests to order and reminders about drug interactions. Watson could deliver precisely the types of information a physician needs for decision making, right at the point of care.
And if you're worried about computers replacing doctors, don't be — that's not the objective here. Watson wouldn't make any diagnoses on its own. But it could advise the physician, suggesting different possibilities with varying degrees of probability or confidence. It could even know what additional information is needed to increase the clarity and confidence of such decisions.
A "Watson Physician's Assistant" could analyze a patient's medical records, summarize them for the doctor and point out causes for concern, highlighting anything abnormal. It would able to understand verbal instructions and reply to them. In a world facing a shortage of doctors and specialists, having technology to help people achieve and maintain good health is a positive step.
The Baltimore area is already jumping into a leadership position here. IBM has begun working with a team lead by Dr. Eliot Siegel, director of the Maryland Imaging Research Technologies Lab at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Dr. Siegel is focusing his research on the best way that a technology like Watson could interact with medical practitioners to provide the maximum assistance.
The research at the University of Maryland is a critical part of moving Watson from the technology lab to the exam room. Just like any medical student, Watson must first learn medical terms, abbreviations and anatomy, then progress to more complex analysis, including interpreting symptoms, reading electronic medical records and ingesting huge amounts of continually updated medical research. Another interesting component will be the creation of "Dr. Watson's" bedside manner, figuring out how doctors and patients will interact with this new medical assistant.
If we embrace these advances and use technology to improve the lives and health of our citizens, then Watson's success on "Jeopardy!" will translate into something that all of humanity can celebrate.
Dion Rudnicki is senior location executive for Bethesda for IBM, one of the nation's largest purchasers of health care. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.