Watson Supercomputer Could Revolutionize Medicine

There has been significant buzz about the IBM supercomputer Watson’s recent appearances on the television quiz show “Jeopardy” and whether the machine will beat Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, the program’s two superstars. While Watson’s celebrity may be cemented by its television appearances, the supercomputer also has the possibility to transform medicine.  Writing in USA Today, Yong Suh, a medical student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says that “The company that revolutionized the personal computer industry in the 20th century has the potential to do the same for healthcare in the 21st century.”  Watson was the victor, winning with a commanding lead of $77,147.

According to Suh, “Performing well on ‘Jeopardy’ and diagnosing sick patients have similar prerequisites: a broad fund of knowledge, ability to process subtlety and ambiguity in natural language, efficient time management, and probabilistic assessment of different possibilities.  Like ‘Jeopardy’ clues, a patient’s symptoms, medical history, physical exam findings and laboratory results present clues that must be synthesized into a differential diagnosis.  While computer systems to assist clinical decision-making have existed for decades, adoption of legacy systems has been hindered by rigid algorithms that require translation of natural language into machine language and heavy reliance on user input.”

Watson has the ability to address two serious problems in healthcare today: deaths due to medical errors and shortage of physicians.  The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has reported that as many as 98,000 deaths a year are due to medical errors – making them the fifth leading cause of death.  Misdiagnosis is frequently the result of cognitive errors physicians make.  Watson’s advanced memory and ability to process information means it can analyze all medical evidence, and minimize bias when making diagnoses.  In terms of the physician shortage, Watson could become a significant technology that forces the medical community to rethink how patients interact with healthcare providers and how the delivery system is organized.

A somewhat contrary view of Watson’s potential for enhancing healthcare is presented by Fahmida Y. Rashid on the website “Medical Center.”  According to Rashid, “Of course, the enormity of the hardware and the algorithmic advances required to make a truly ‘revolutionary’ tool such as this are obviously staggering. Considering that it takes 10 racks of multiprocessor IBM servers with 15 terabytes of memory and a team of varied domain experts writing algorithms for several years to accomplish the NLP advances and lookups to answer ‘Jeopardy’ style trivia questions, one can only imagine what a truly useful cybernetic medical assistance system would look like.  It should also be remembered that Watson does not think.  Humans do.  I believe a machine even close to passing a ‘New England Journal of Medicine Turing test’ (a measure of a machine’s ability to demonstrate intelligence will be a long time in coming.  Until then, we should be encouraging better support for human physicians struggling to use their medical expertise in a sea of bureaucracy, stress and overwork (part of which will increasingly be a struggle with mission-hostile health IT).”

More and more frequently, physicians are using hand-held devices – such as smart phones – to access information on their patients.  This way, they do not have to rely on memory to determine exactly what medications a particular patient is taking.

Johns Hopkins’ Suh also notes that “The prospect of using Watson in medicine also raises some difficult questions.  What will be the new roles for physicians, nurses, technicians and other healthcare professionals when the current hierarchy, delineated by varying levels of medical knowledge, is flattened by an intelligent machine?  What will be the impact on the practice of humanistic medicine?  How will patient outcomes be affected by patient-machine interactions? Who will be held accountable for medical errors that arise from decisions made by a machine?”  Only time will tell.

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