IBM's Watson supercomputer to diagnose patients

Watson will initially be used to help treat cancer patients

Watson, IBM's game-show-playing supercomputer, will soon be used to help physicians diagnose and treat cancer patients.

IBM announced earlier this year that healthcare would be the first commercial application for the computer, which defeated two human champions on the popular television game show Jeopardy! in February.

IBM and the WellPoint health benefits company today announced a plan to jointly create applications that can be used by WellPoint's teams of physicians and other medical personnel.

IBM and WellPoint, which is Blue Cross, Blue Shield's largest health plan, have agreed to develop Watson-based applications that can improve patient care through the use of evidence-based medicine, which is designed to standardize patient treatments by identifying proven best practices. A simple example of evidence-based medicine in action would be when a provider automatically places someone who has suffered a heart attack on an aspirin regimen upon leaving the hospital.

The Watson supercomputer is made up of 90 IBM Power 750 Express servers powered by eight-core processors -- four in each machine for a total of 32 processors per machine. The servers are virtualized using a kernel-based virtual machine (KVM) implementation, creating a server cluster with a total processing capacity of 80 teraflops. A teraflop is one trillion operations per second.

Working with speech and imaging recognition software provider Nuance Communications, IBM said the supercomputer can assist healthcare professionals in culling through gigabytes or terabytes of patient healthcare information to determine how to best treat specific illnesses.

For example, Watson's analytics technology, used with Nuance's voice and clinical language understanding software, could help a physician consider all related texts, reference materials, prior cases, and latest knowledge in journals and medical literature when treating an illness. The analysis could quickly help physicians determine the best options for diagnosis and treatment.

"There are breathtaking advances in medical science and clinical knowledge [but] this clinical information is not always used in the care of patients," said Dr. Sam Nussbaum, WellPoint's Chief Medical Officer, in a statement.

"Imagine having the ability to take in all the information around a patient's medical care -- symptoms, findings, patient interviews and diagnostic studies. Then, imagine using Watson analytic capabilities to consider all of the prior cases, the state-of-the-art clinical knowledge in the medical literature and clinical best practices to help a physician advance a diagnosis and guide a course of treatment. We believe this will be an invaluable resource for our partnering physicians and will dramatically enhance the quality and effectiveness of medical care they deliver to our members," Nussbaum added.

Watson, named after IBM founder Thomas Watson, can rifle through 200 million pages of data and provide precise responses in just seconds.

WellPoint said it expects to begin employing Watson technology in early 2012 in clinical pilots with selected physician groups.

"The implications for healthcare are extraordinary," said Lori Beer, WellPoint's executive vice president of Enterprise Business Services. "We believe new solutions built on the IBM Watson technology will be valuable for our provider partners, and more importantly, give us new tools to help ensure our members are receiving the best possible care."

Manoj Saxena, Global Solutions Leader for IBM Global Business Services, said Watson will initially be piloted by Wellpoint's community of oncologists, who will access its capabilities through a Web-based platform.

The computer used for the pilot will be somewhat smaller than the model used in Jeopardy!, but because of optimization since that time, it will have the same processing power, Saxena said.

Saxena said that much like travel sites Expedia and Travelocity, physicians will be able to input certain criteria to get back the best options for diagnoses and treatment. The results will come after Watson sifts through online clinical research and best practices, patient information in electronic health records (EHR), as well as historical insurance claim information related to specific patients, Saxena added.

The computer will reside in Wellpoint's core data center in Richmond, Va., but as the system develops, IBM said it will also be offering its capabilities to caregivers through a Web-based cloud service.

Lori Beer, executive vice president of Enterprise Business Services at WellPoint, said that while the healthcare provider has its own homegrown EHR system, many of its caregivers use platforms from a variety of vendors, so Watson's interface will need to adapt to different workflows.

Beer said that the program is starting in the oncology unit because cancer care and treatment research costs are growing faster than other areas.

"If you think about the power of [combining] all our information along with all that comparative research and medical knowledge ... that's what really creates this game changing capability for healthcare," Beer said. "Watson can present the physician with the most likely diagnosis ... and the probability that it's accurate, as well as presenting all the evidence that supports that diagnosis."

"Even more important is the course of treatment that follows that diagnosis. Through that whole continuity of care, from diagnosis through the whole course of treatment - that's really how we envision Watson being a game changers in terms of driving better quality healthcare," she added.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and healthcare IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian, or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His email address is

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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