“Watson”, is an artificial intelligence computer system that answers questions posed in natural language, and is a product of IBM’s R&D department. Much of the buzz surrounding Watson occurred when it handily defeated two Jeopardy contestants last week.
After the defeat, IBM announced they would be working with Nuance, Columbia University Medical Center, and the University of Maryland Medical School on health care analytics research. The goal of the collaboration is to develop a commercial offering in the next 18 to 24 months that will exploit Watson’s capabilities to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of patients.
The win on Jeopardy and the announcement of this healthcare initiative for Watson has led some in the media to feel Watson can actually replace the diagnosing and treating physicians do with their patients — a CNN anchor even postulated that “Watson could do everything but operate” .
Does Watson have the potential to be helpful in healthcare? Yes, but only if we understand its limitations. The following exchange between Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt and Surgeon Atul Gawande highlights the problems with using computer based algorithms in medicine.
Last year at the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) meeting, Google’s Schmidt was befuddled as to why physicians hadn’t adopted the use of computer algorithms to diagnose patients. He stated:
“So when you show up at the doctor with some set of symptoms, in my ideal world what would happen is that the doctor would type in the symptoms he or she also observes, and it would be matched against the data in this repository…….As computer scientists, this is a platform database problem, and we do these very, very well, as a general rule. And it befuddles me why medicine hasn’t organized itself around these platform opportunities.”
Dr. Atul Gawande, a Harvard University surgeon, and author of The Checklist Manifesto, responded by saying:
“I think part of the bafflement occurs because the folks who know how to make such systems don’t understand how the clinical encounter actually operates.”
He went on to state that the bigger issue with these types of algorithm searches is they produce more information than needed for a physician, who usually has 15 minutes to manage six problems. Dr. Gawande didn’t dismiss this type of computer decision support though — and finished his response to Google’s Schmidt by saying he would welcome a smartphone app that could actually help with patient care.
This type of exchange, showing a computer scientists understanding of clinical medicine, highlights why reports of Watson’s role in medicine are likely over exaggerated. Medicine cannot be reduced to a set of complex algorithms because much of the data for these algorithms cannot even be inputted. Those without training in medicine do not understand the multifaceted “behind the scenes” analysis that actually occurs when talking to a patient. (read more)