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

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Then, when a doctor is considering treating a patient with a particular drug or treatment, he first can ask Watson how that treatment has worked on patients with similar diagnoses and backgrounds.

"Watson can ingest information efficiently and rapidly," Siegel said. "It'll have an encyclopedic knowledge and suggest diagnostic and therapeutic possibilities based on databases much larger than one physician can possibly hold in his head.

"This technology brings a potential to have a renaissance of medical diagnosis," he added. "It offers the potential for us in the next five or 10 years to routinely deploy computers when working with our patients."

Jennifer Chu-Carroll, an IBM researcher on the Watson project, said the computer system is a perfect fit for the healthcare field.

"There's so much electronic information out there, and it's projected to continue to grow," Chu-Carroll said. "Nobody can possibly ingest all that information. Without a tool, there's no way to leverage it."

She also said she believes that at some point Watson will have a speech-recognition capability so it can actually go into an exam room and listen to a patient talk about his symptoms while it runs through his medical records.

"Think of some version of Watson being a physician's assistant," Chu-Carroll said. "In its spare time, Watson can read all the latest medical journals and get updated. Then it can go with the doctor into exam rooms and listen in as patients tell doctors about their symptoms. It can start coming up with hypotheses about what ails the patient."

She added, "The physician will make the decisions, but Watson can help."

Doherty said that having a supercomputer that can ingest and analyze loads of data and then answer questions much as a human would could radically change not only medical diagnostics, but also medical research and pandemic recognition and management.

"Spotting trends could save lives and save money," he said. "What humans can't always see, Watson may be able to.

"I think we're on the cusp of a revolution," Doherty added.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at  @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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