Watson heads to medical school

Cleveland Clinic, IBM send supercomputer to college
By Mike Miliard
01:45 PM
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Cleveland Clinic and IBM are partnering to increase the use of the Watson supercomputer in medical training. IBM researchers will work with Cleveland Clinic faculty and students to enhance Watson's Deep Question Answering technology for medicine.

IBM officials say Watson's ability to analyze the meaning and context of human language – and quickly process information to piece together evidence for answers – can help clinicians, nurses and medical students uncover knowledge buried within huge volumes of information.

The past few years have seen Watson gaining knowledge in the field of medicine, they add, and so Cleveland Clinic has recognized the opportunity for Watson to interact with medical students as they themselves learn the ropes.

"Every day, physicians and scientists around the world add more and more information to what I think of as an ever-expanding, global medical library," said C. Martin Harris, MD, chief information officer of Cleveland Clinic.

"Cleveland Clinic's collaboration with IBM is exciting because it offers us the opportunity to teach Watson to 'think' in ways that have the potential to make it a powerful tool in medicine," he added. "Technology like this can allow us to leverage that medical library to help train our students and also find new ways to address the public health challenges we face today."

One of those challenges is to cope with vast and ever-growing troves of medical knowledge. Even if a student were to memorize whole text books and medical journals, there are always new advances to learn.

It's best for students to learn through doing, Cleveland Clinic officials point out – such as by taking patient case studies, analyzing them, coming up with hypotheses and then finding and connecting evidence in reference materials to identify diagnoses and treatment options.

That's where Watson, with his ability to process huge amounts of data and sniff out evidence-based solutions, comes in. Students at Cleveland Clinic will interact with Watson on challenging cases as part of a problem-based learning curriculum and in hypothetical clinical simulations, officials say.

Watson technology will be made available to help students learn the process of navigating the latest content, suggesting and considering a variety of hypotheses, and finding key evidence to support potential answers, diagnoses and possible treatment options.

In turn, those students will help fine tune Watson's language and domain analysis capabilities by judging the evidence it provides and analyzing its answers.

This collaboration will also focus on leveraging Watson to process an electronic medical record (EMR) based on a deep semantic understanding of the content within an EMR, officials say.

"The practice of medicine is changing and so should the way medical students learn," said David Ferrucci, IBM fellow and the principal investigator of the Watson project. "In the real world, medical case scenarios should rely on people's ability to quickly find and apply the most relevant knowledge. Finding and evaluating multistep paths through the medical literature is required to identify evidence in support of potential diagnoses and treatment options."

"New discoveries and medical breakthroughs are growing our collective knowledge of medicine at an unprecedented pace, and tomorrow's doctors will have to embrace new tools and technology to complement their own knowledge and experience in the field," added James Stoller, MD, chair of the Education Institute at Cleveland Clinic. "Technology will never replace the doctor, but it can make us better. Our students and faculty are excited to play a role in getting us there."