IBM’s Watson gets into healthcare, may pursue future in government

IBM’s jeopardy playing supercomputer Watson is moving out of the game show circuit and into healthcare, it may even have a future in politics. IBM has partnered with WellPoint the nation’s largest insurer to look at ways the technology that powers Watson can be used to make health care more manageable. CivSource spoke with Dr. Basit Chaudhry, medical scientist and IBM researcher about Watson’s role in health care and government.

Watson, named after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, is a computing system designed to rival a human’s ability to answer questions posed in natural language with speed, accuracy and confidence. By compiling large amounts of data and understanding non-obvious linkages, Watson is able to replicate the human understanding of ambiguity in language such as implied meanings or references. This understanding backed by fast processing power is what gives Watson an edge on jeopardy and according to IBM will make Watson valuable in health care where understanding situations quickly is paramount.

According to Dr. Chaudhry, health care professionals face an unprecedented deluge of information when it comes to managing the care of their patients and the administrative requirements of their job. “As medical professionals, we used to work from 5-10 facts about a patient. Now we work from 15-20 facts. Very quickly we’ll need to work from hundreds of facts, including the factors of the patients overall health, treatment options, insurance requirements, it’s more than any one person can realistically handle in their head. Watson is designed to manage this much information in its decision making process.”

WellPoint will initially be leveraging Watson for management of the hospital staff and understanding more about patients through the data contained in claims and casework. They hope to take the data about claims, health care, and patient outcomes and gain better insights about the health care process as a whole, including potential solutions for streamlining care. The pilot projects are in very early stages of development and will be providing results over the next few years.

When asked about other applications for Watson, Dr. Chaudhry noted that Watson is more like a computing platform which allows the technology to be used in a variety of ways. He envisions a future in which Watson is in the room with doctors as they treat patients as well as in a research environment providing aggregate analytical data on health care.

Beyond clinical applications, Watson may also be able to help with the policy components of healthcare. Dr. Chaudhry noted that Watson can enhance primary care delivery at the medical home which also has broader implications for emerging areas that lean on technology such as rural telehealth. Watson’s capacity for understanding great volumes of information can also help policy officials manage the resource allocation demands of health care which are only expected to increase.

“Watson can help officials start to deal with questions like what do we do with Medicaid based on demand, or the realities of their state population. Or it can deal with questions that arise out of the new health care reform bill, as currently uninsured people get ushered into the the insurance system Watson can help exmamine how to absorb millions of people into the system.”

Wayne DeVeydt, CFO at WellPoint, has called Watson a “unique disruptor,” in health care. IBM is seeking to meet the growing demands of the field, beyond Watson, the company expanded its health analytics group earlier this year and is will likely continue to build this part of its portfolio.