5 facts about Watson and healthcare

By Michelle McNickle
11:40 AM

Earlier this year, a robot named Watson beat out two long-time champs on the quiz show Jeopardy, using 200 million pages of structured and unstructured content. The QA computing system built by IBM has since garnered attention from folks within the healthcare industry, and this past September, Watson landed his first full-time gig with WellPoint Inc., which plans to use Watson’s data-crunching to suggest treatment options, monitor patients and offer support to physicians.

To learn more about Watson’s role in healthcare, both now and in the years to come, we asked Andrew J. Lang, CIO at WellPoint, to share some of the company’s plans. “We’re linked with IBM, and we have a strong partnership with them that predates Watson,” said Lang. “We’re the first to bring the Watson solution to the market, and our first focus is on a diagnosis and treatment for oncology. Then, we’re moving both vertically and horizontally from that space to explore other partnerships with Watson and IBM.” 

Here are five additional things to know about Watson’s role in healthcare: 

1. He needs to learn, like the rest of us. Like all physicians who attended medical school, the computing system needs to fill up on knowledge. “In partnership with IBM, we’re ingesting all the medical evidence from medical journals, books and so forth,” said Lang. “We’re using that as medical evidence and are working with IBM on training Watson, so we can take data with known results.” From there, the Watson engine learns how to interpret the medical evidence and make correlations across different disease types. “We’re initially focused on oncology and working with a number of provider partners as well as oncology research centers,” he said. “We’re bringing information into Watson and training him to interpret it.” 

[See also: Wellpoint to help IBM bring Watson technology to market.]

2. He can be a doc’s best friend. Lang said he and his team are also building a set of applications that allow physicians to take patient information and present it to Watson. Then, they’ll get a probability-based response back on the potential diagnoses as well as potential treatment options associated with them. “It’s an information assist tool, which gives back to the physician on the diagnosis and treatment of oncology,” he said. “It comes back with probabilities and helps interact and dialogue with the physicians.” He added IBM is bringing the “Watson artificial intelligence engine” to that project, and WellPoint is partnering with them to both educate Watson and to build out surround systems to integrate into a provider practice. 

3. He can help treat cancer. “Within oncology, we’re focusing on breast, lung and colon cancer,” said Lang. “We were looking for an area where the power of the Watson engine and the surrounding systems could make a difference; you wouldn’t need Watson to diagnose things like strep throat, for example.” Lang said he and his team wanted to focus on conditions with a level of complexity to them, as well as conditions that are significant to the patient. The decision to pursue oncology also stemmed from the disease’s high variability around treatments. “IBM has a big influx of information evidence that’s coming out, so if we can take all that information and educate Watson, it can assist physicians, and we can move the dial around the treatment of oncology.” The ultimate goal, he said, is to improve the Watson technology so physicians feel comfortable both consulting and operating with it. “And so it fits their workflows,” he added. “We’re looking for a horizontal and vertical expansion to increase that to other disease types, not only in cancer, but then things like diabetes and cardio vascular.” 

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4. He can streamline processes. In an environment where Watson is front and center, instead of a patient filling out a form at a doctor’s office, the physician would have access to a longitudinal patient record. “[That’s] one of the pieces we’re building with the surround system,” Lang said. “We would have that patient info pulled together from the many sources across the industry. The patient can see that information, make updates, and have a conversation with the clinician and make updates to things like blood pressure.” After the patient updates his/her history, Watson would start looking through it and make an analysis of the patient based on his/her information. The doctor can also consult with Watson and see what additional information he can offer. “They’ll look at different research articles and begin another dialogue,” said Lang. “We envision Watson, based on the information presented about the patient, suggesting and identifying areas where additional information would be helpful to make a better diagnosis.” This would also help the doctor make a more selective choice around the treatment options and spur additional conversations with Watson, he added. 

[See also: IBM announces financing partnerships with EMR vendors.]

5. He can help manage complex and chronic conditions. Complex conditions have a series of activities that happen afterward, said Lang, so he and his team are looking at surround systems working in tandem with Watson to help enable them. “If I’m having a knee replacement surgery, for example, and there’s 15 steps to the procedure as well as therapy and medication, then the follow-ups would be cycled back through Watson and the surround systems,” he said. Physicians could see how patients are progressing, said Lang, and when it comes to diseases such as diabetes and cancer, Watson can help with leveraging information and driving a continuity of care. “This would enable improved outcomes through evidence-based medicine,” he said. “It would dramatically improve the health of our patients and improve the quality of physician treatments and diagnoses. Ultimately, through Watson, we want to reduce costs and promote best practices around diagnoses. We want to get better results while spending less money.” 

 Follow Michelle McNickle on Twitter, @Michelle_writes