IBM's Watson could usher in new era of medicine

'Dr. Watson' could act as a physician's assistant, sorting electronic medical histories and even diagnosing patients

The game-show-playing supercomputer Watson is expected to do much more than make a name for itself on Jeopardy.

IBM's computer could very well herald a whole new era in medicine.

That's the vision of IBM engineers and Dr. Eliot Siegel, professor and vice chairman of the University of Maryland School of Medicine's department of diagnostic radiology.

Siegel and his colleagues at the University of Maryland and at Columbia University Medical Center are working with IBM engineers to figure out the best ways for Watson to work hand in hand with physicians and medical specialists.

Siegel, who refers to the computer not as the champ of Jeopardy but as "Dr. Watson," says he expects the computer, which can respond to questions with answers rather than with data and spread sheets, to radically improve doctors' care of their patients.

"There is a major challenge in medicine today," Siegel told Computerworld. "There's an incredible amount of information in a patient's medical record. It's in the form of abbreviations and short text. There's a tremendous amount of redundancy, and a lot of it is written in a free-form fashion like a blog or text.

"As a physician or radiologist, it might take me 10 or 20 or 60 minutes or more just to understand what's in a patient's medical record," he said.

Within a year, Siegel hopes that "Dr. Watson" will change all of that. Watson is expected to be able to take a patient's electronic medical records, digest them, summarize them for the doctor and point out any causes for concern, highlighting anything abnormal and warning about potential drug interactions.

"It offers the potential to usher in a whole new generation of medicine," Siegel said. "If all Dr. Watson did was allow me to organize electronic medical records and bring to my attention what's most important and summarize it, that would be incredibly valuable to me.

"Even small things that Watson can do will change the way I, and my colleagues, practice medicine," he said.

The ability to deliver a single, precise answer from these documents could go a long way in transforming the healthcare industry. Watson, the IBM computing system designed to play Jeopardy!, could deliver such a solution.

Richard F. Doherty, research director at analysis firm Envisioneering Group, said he's excited to have a computer organize his medical history for his physician.

"That sounds excellent," Doherty said. "I think we've all been through the situation of filling out forms for new doctors, and then they don't have the time to read through it all, and they just say, 'What? You have a sore throat?' Having Watson help attend to our needs sounds like a great application of [the computer]."

But organizing and summarizing patient histories isn't all Watson is expected to do.

Siegel, who also works with the National Cancer Institute, said he's hoping that Watson will also be able to take patient and treatment information from hundreds, if not thousands, of hospitals and pull it all together.

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