WellPoint brings Watson to healthcare

By Chris Anderson
10:51 AM

IBM is teaming with WellPoint to develop the first commercial applications of its Watson technology, with an eye toward bringing evidence-based information to care providers.

Watson is the computing system built by IBM that is intended to rival a human’s ability to answer question posed in natural language. Watson’s most public foray into proving its ability to handle the task was in its appearance on the TV game-show Jeopardy! where it competed against and twice beat two former champions.

[See also: IBM uses 'Watson' analytics to increase smartphone, EHR capabilities.]

The concept of the development program is to provide healthcare providers with easy access to the most relevant and recent medical findings as published in medical literature. With its ability to analyze data at the rate of approximately 1 million books or 200 million pages of data and analyze it to provide an answer in less than 3 seconds, the two companies envision Watson as a method for healthcare providers to keep up with the ever increasing volume of relevant medical literature.

"There are breathtaking advances in medical science and clinical knowledge, however this clinical information is not always used in the care of patients. Imagine having the ability to take in all the information around a patient's medical care – symptoms, findings, patient interviews and diagnostic studies. Then, imagine using Watson analytic capabilities to consider all of the prior cases, the state-of-the-art clinical knowledge in the medical literature and clinical best practices to help a physician advance a diagnosis and guide a course of treatment," said Sam Nussbaum, MD, WellPoint's chief medical officer in a press release announcing the deal. "We believe this will be an invaluable resource for our partnering physicians and will dramatically enhance the quality and effectiveness of medical care they deliver to our members."

The applications being developed will use Watson's ability to analyze the meaning and context of human language, and quickly process vast amounts of information to suggest options targeted to a patient's unique circumstances. This information can then be used to assist caregivers, such as physicians and nurses, in identifying the most likely diagnosis and treatment options for their patients.

[See also: IBM, Nuance to apply 'Watson' analytics to healthcare.]

"With medical information doubling every five years and healthcare costs increasing, Watson has tremendous potential for applications that improve the efficiency of care and reduce wait times for diagnosis and treatment by enabling clinicians with access to the best clinical data the moment they need it," added Manoj Saxena, general manager, Watson Solutions, IBM Software Group.

In addition to suggesting treatment options, Watson should also help improve the flow of data and information between providers and the patient’s health plan aimed at improving the efficiency of clinical review of complex cases. According to WellPoint, it could also eventually be used to help direct patients to the provider in their area that has the best success rate in treating their specific condition.

"The implications for healthcare are extraordinary," said Lori Beer, WellPoint's executive vice president of Enterprise Business Services. “We believe new solutions built on the IBM Watson technology will be valuable for our provider partners, and more importantly, give us new tools to help ensure our members are receiving the best possible care."

If the development efforts of the Watson applications progress according to plan, WellPoint said it intends to deploy the solution via a pilot to select physicians groups by early next year.