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 patients.
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.
For "Jeopardy," 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 IBM.
"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 said.
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, Smith said.
"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 "dashboard."
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 interactions.
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 Nguyen.
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, Nguyen added.
Initially, WellPoint clinicians will apply Watson technology through a PC-based Web browser, but researchers may eventually use tablets and other mobile devices as well, said Smith.
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 of 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.