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Analytics & Data Healthcare

Why I’m So Excited About Watson, IBM’s Answer “Man”

Image via Shutterstock

(Image via Shutterstock)

When Ginni Rometty recently explained to Charlie Rose that she and her team were “reinventing IBM using data, the cloud, and mobility,” it began to sound like clients would soon be able to subscribe to the company’s much-promoted Watson artificial intelligence service for solutions to the world’s most difficult and complicated problems.

Not long after, the Washington Post detailed precisely how a subscription to IBM’s Watson might work to fight cancer. Titled “The Human Upgrade, Watson’s Next Feat, Taking on Cancer,” the article describes how the goal is for Watson to “use sophisticated artificial intelligence to find personalized treatments for every cancer patient by comparing disease and treatment histories, genetic data, scans, and symptoms against the vast universe of medical knowledge.”

According to Rometty on Charlie Rose, 4,000 companies are now in line to subscribe to Watson Health, and it’s easy to understand why.

Watson is said to have the power to learn about everything going on in the world about cancer and, based on all that knowledge, recommend customized treatments.

Few enterprises can afford to buy or build a system remotely comparable to Watson, and, under Rometty, investment and information have been poured into IBM’s amazingly-well-informed, nimble superbrain.

“IBM invented almost everything about data,” Rometty insisted. “Our research lab was the first one ever in Silicon Valley. Creating Watson made perfect sense for us. Now he’s ready to help everyone.”

Data, clearly, will be the most important natural resource of the 21st century. If we all had a Watson, capitalizing on its ability to find connections between all kinds of information would potentially improve every decision.

Because Watson can analyze and compare all the information we compile today about cancer, it can digest the huge pools of data created by research, people’s records, and daily routines to find patterns and connections that predict needs and solutions. Today, Watson is learning how to read mammography film to make sure its recommendations incorporate everything about each patient’s individual profile.

It feels like a real revolution in healthcare is on the horizon says Lynda Chin, a physician-scientist and associate vice chancellor for the University of Texas system. She is overseeing the Watson project at MD Anderson Cancer Center.

“These types of programs are key to democratizing medical treatment and eliminating the disparity that exists between those with access to the best doctors and those without,” Chin continued.

She, like Rometty, sees IBM’s Watson as “technology that allows us to break free from our current healthcare system based on and limited by community providers.”

Suddenly, the service IBM calls Watson Health offers an expert center to everyone. Organizations that subscribe no longer have to take the do-it-yourself approach to cancer research.

As Dr. Chin says, “Instead of having to find specialists in a different city, photocopy and send all the patient’s files to them, and spend countless hours researching the medical literature, a doctor could simply consult Watson.”

As someone who was diagnosed with stage-four ovarian cancer in January of 2002, I can testify to the immense frustration every cancer patient experiences when we realize that our doctors simply cannot give us definitive answers.

Cancer treatment today is much too often a trial and error process. Oncologists cannot keep up with the results of all the research underway, never mind compare the progress of one patient’s cancer with the progress of the thousands of others with the same form of the disease.

Cancer patients today live or die in a medical world that is far from tech literate. Computers are making their way into clinics and offices, but when you, the patient, are meeting with your oncologist, the computer is rarely part of the conversation.

Most often, when you meet with your doctor, he or she paws through a thick, worn file of paperwork from labs and hospitals attempting to answer your questions. In the process they are implicitly conveying how difficult it is to keep up with your progress.

This is hardly encouraging. Unless you are a math wizard who can quickly figure ratios of false positives in your head, very often a visit to the oncologist wipes out everything you thought you knew and replaces it with a thousand additional questions and the queasy feeling one has when walking along the edge of a steep cliff. I hope health care companies will subscribe to Watson Health with alacrity.

Rometty on Charlie Rose said IBM’s Watson is also working with clients in the areas of energy, transportation, governance, and finance: “IBM has the largest commercial research organization in the world. We are totally focused on how Watson can use what we learn to transform industries and reimagine work.”

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