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IBM's Dr Watson seeks to deliver automated healthcare

Data analytics platform aimed at improving diagnosis

IBM is making a play to help manage patient care with its Watson data analytics computing platform, amid potential concerns arising out of automated healthcare.

Watson has been in development since 2006 when it was launched as IBM's next Grand Challenge, to follow the Deep Blue computing platform that went on to defeat World Chess Master Garry Kasparov in 1997.

The technology behind Deep Blue was eventually integrated into the Blue Gene IBM supercomputing platform, and IBM is developing Watson to also turn it into a commercial platform.

At its annual Information on Demand conference in Las Vegas this week, IBM said Watson will first be aimed at the healthcare market, amid trials already being completed in partnership with the Wellpoint healthcare insurance firm in Texas. Wellpoint wants to use Watson's data processing and data analytics capabilities to cut down on hospital re-admissions and resulting government financial penalties on hospitals through the misdiagnosis of patients.

IBM Watson general manager Manoj Saxena said that after the platform was tested and launched commercially in the healthcare sector, the aim was to introduce it to the financial services, customer contact centre and government sectors.

Saxena said: "90 percent of the world's data was created in the last two years, and companies are dying of thirst surrounded by the sea water created by the 80 percent of unstructured data in their systems.

"Most systems they use are only geared to handle the 20 percent of structured data they have, and this is where Watson comes in."

Watson is designed to understand natural language in unstructured data and is being applied to medical diagnostics. Its capabilities allow medical histories of patients to be overlaid with their symptons and their family histories of past illnesses, to allow clinicians to reach what is hoped is the more accurate diagnosis of patients.

When asked by Computerworld UK whether widespread automation of patient medical care to effectively save money for companies like Wellpoint could be dangerous, considering that Watson, unlike a doctor or nurse, can't see, feel or talk to a patient in the medical room, Saxena was quick to try to allay fears.

He said: "Watson will not be making any decision on a diagnosis, it will be helping to make a diagnosis, already about one-in-five decisions on what is wrong with a patient are innacurate and the healthcare sector needs the data analytics Watson can offer - the platform could be considered as a more powerful medical journal."

That said, there is no guarantee that the odd doctor or nurse may be tempted to rely on Watson, instead of their medical training.

Watson has already demonstrated its power on prime time US TV after it won the popular Jeopardy quiz show when pitted against two high performing humans in February. For a commercial product to be launched in healthcare though, IBM admitted it first had to develop a user interface that doctors and nurses would be able to easily use.


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