IBM's Watson and the Future of Healthcare Data Analytics

In 2011, IBM's Watson defeated former Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, showing off the computer system's natural language processing and information mining capabilities.

Now, Watson's powerful data analytics abilities are taking on some of healthcare's greatest challenges.

Watson's core capability, which helped it win against the former Jeopardy! winners, is the ability to quickly process massive amounts of information, come to a conclusion and then attach a confidence rating to that conclusion, explains Sean Hogan, IBM's vice president of healthcare.

This ability is particularly applicable to the field of medicine, as often an exact answer isn't available and treatment teams are focused on finding the treatment option they're most confident in, says Mr. Hogan. "The treatment process is about gathering information to either confirm or eliminate a hypothesis to arrive at a better understanding of the situation — Watson's ability to access large amounts of medical knowledge, process it and serve it up with a confidence rating can be a great help in this process," he says.  

Watson's abilities are becoming increasingly useful as electronic medical records, health information exchanges and other IT systems make more and more data available to feed into Watson, allowing the technology to produce more actionable and refined solutions, says Mr. Hogan.

Recently, IBM partnered with Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, Cleveland Clinic and MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, among others, to use Watson's technology to advance the practice of medicine. There has been particular interest among several of these organizations in applying Watson to improve cancer research and care.

At MD Anderson, Watson is an integral part of the Center's "Moon Shots" mission to eradicate cancer. In Houston and through its regional and national network of treatment sites, MD Anderson has amassed a deep reserve of clinical oncology data. MD Anderson's Oncology Expert Advisor, powered by Watson, is designed to identify key information, especially from unstructured clinical notes, to combine relevant information about a specific patient with textbook knowledge and information about past patients' treatment plans to fine-tune specific treatment plans.

"One unique aspect of the MD Anderson Oncology Expert Advisor is that it will not solely rely on established cancer care pathways to recommend appropriate treatment options," said Lynda Chin, MD, professor and chair of genomic medicine and scientific director of the Institute for Applied Cancer Science at MD Anderson. "The system was built with the understanding that what we know today will not be enough for many patients."

Watson allows MD Anderson clinicians and researchers to efficiently analyze all available data to gain a better understanding of how individuals progress in the disease and to develop best practices around designing treatment plans. Watson is an essential part of the Center's attack plan against cancer, says Mr. Hogan. "It's part of their mission to use everything within their means to achieve their objective," he says. "Watson is a key capability they're tapping into."

Currently, Watson technology is mainly being used for oncology treatment and research and by some of the most advanced facilities in the country. However, Mr. Hogan sees a future where Watson's technology, and the resulting actionable information, is used more broadly throughout the healthcare industry.

"Right now, a lot of the focus in on the effectiveness of health systems," says Mr. Hogan. He sees Watson's potential to improve transitions of care through compiling all relevant information and presenting the best course of action, or assisting physicians in making a quicker, more accurate diagnosis by integrating information from the ever-growing supply of medical literature.

"Watson is like an expert adviser who never gets tired, never makes mistakes and can help you consider all available information," says Mr. Hogan. "It can help apply available information to any decision point during the care process."

IBM plans to partner with more organizations in the future to utilize Watson's capabilities and hopes soon to expand beyond oncology to cardiac conditions, diabetes and other diseases that are taking a human and financial toll across the country. On Jan. 9, IBM announced the creation of a new business unit focused solely on accelerating the adoption of Watson's cognitive computing abilities across various industries, including healthcare. "This is a very, very exciting time for us," says Mr. Hogan. "And we're very committed to making [these Watson partnerships] successful."

More Articles on Watson:

How Healthcare App Developers are Using Watson
The Future of Medicine: 6 New Technologies Transforming the Field
IBM to Open Watson to Third-Party Developers

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