Health insurer WellPoint is developing commercial products to help doctors make better clinical decisions using IBM's Watson supercomputer.
Watson is moving on from
"Jeopardy" champion to physician's assistant. IBM and health insurer
WellPoint are now creating the first commercial products for the super-smart
supercomputer and plan to test these applications in clinical trials soon.
WellPoint will allow doctors
to use Watson
to improve diagnostic accuracy, make better-informed treatment decisions and
fine-tune claims processing.
"The goal of this
WellPoint/Watson effort is to improve people's lives," Dr. Anthony Nguyen,
WellPoint's senior vice president of care management, told eWEEK
. "It gives us an opportunity now to give physicians and
practicing doctors the most updated information while they're treating our
members and our patients."
Under the agreement
announced Sept. 12, IBM and WellPoint will also use Watson to simplify
coordination between health care providers, benefits administrators and
Watson gained fame during a
stint on "Jeopardy" earlier this year, and the appearance re-airs
Sept. 12 through Sept. 14
. The supercomputer features a human-like ability
to respond to questions asked in natural language.
Watson ran on 90 IBM Power 750 Express servers powered by eight-core CPUs, but
for the trials with WellDoc, the insurer will determine the hardware components
it requires, according to Rod Smith, vice president of emerging technology at
"Watson runs on
hardware that will be tailored to what WellPoint needs as far as
hardware," Smith told eWEEK
The supercomputer can scan
information in 1 million books or about 200 million pages of data, analyze it
and respond with answers in less than three seconds, according to IBM.
Watson will sort through
large amounts of electronic health records (EHRs) and unstructured medical data
to help doctors and nurses provide recommendations on treatment plans, Smith
The IBM technology will be
able to pull information from social networking accounts to see what patients'
preferences are, Nguyen noted.
Although Watson was a
speaking robot on "Jeopardy," IBM and WellPoint will decide through
the course of the trial how Watson will present answers to doctors and nurses,
"The user experience is
going to be very important, but how it fits into WellPoint's operations will be
critical," said Smith. "We'll explore many ways to bring
answers." In the meantime, Smith suggested thinking of Watson as a
New applications developed
using Watson will be able to draw on information in patients' medical
histories, tests and recent research. It can then allow doctors to decide on
effective treatment plans. Watson will also help doctors gain awareness of drug
With Watson, WellPoint hopes
to bring customized information to a patient's needs, according to Nguyen.
"It will bring
scientific information specially tailored to you and also layered with your
desires and wants that will hopefully increase your [medication]
compliance," said Nguyen.
WellDoc will roll out the
trials in two stages. By the end of this year, nurses at WellPoint will begin
to test the technology to help them make decisions on whether a patient might
need treatments such as bariatric surgery. In the first quarter of 2012,
WellPoint will test the technology on oncology cases like prostate cancer, said
If the development of
products goes well in initial trials, WellPoint will expand applications to
include use by other specialists such as cardiologists and pediatricians,
clinicians will apply Watson technology through a PC-based Web browser, but
researchers may eventually use tablets and other mobile devices as well, said
Because of its high volume
of data, the medical field is the first industry in which IBM will develop
commercial products using Watson.
"The medical field is
probably the most prolific as far as the amount of information that's published
every year," said Smith.
The life and death factor in
health care makes the medical field a solid test for Watson, according to Nguyen.
Earlier this year, IBM
announced it would combine
Watson technology with the clinical-language understanding capabilities
Nuance Communications to develop a commercial product in 18 to 24 months.
Columbia University Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of
Medicine will contribute medical expertise to IBM and Nuance.