Earlier this year, I wrote an article stating why IBM’s Watson could not replace a physician — in response to claims that were being made when Watson achieved world wide fame by handily defeating two Jeopardy contestants.

“Watson”, is an artificial intelligence computer system that answers questions posed in natural language, and is a product of IBM’s R&D department.

When it was announced IBM would be working with medical researchers at Columbia and the University of Maryland, some pundits made statements believing Watson could one day replace a physician — prompting my aforementioned response.

Yesterday, the Associated Press released details of IBM’s medical partnership, mentioning how IBM sees Watson’s role in medicine, focusing on potential mobile capabilities, and how medical blogs could be utilized for improving Watson’s diagnosing capabilities.  The results and ideas being floated are definitely fascinating. 

Medical Blogs:

Dr. Herbert Chase, a Columbia University medical school professor — was quick to point out how Watson might use nontraditional information in its medical algorithms — such as medical blogs of patients. Crowdsourcing medical web information could lead to seeing earlier trends in medical care and management

Watson is still clearly far from perfect:

In a sample demonstration for the Associated Press, when presented with a patient with eye pathology, Watson incorrectly jumped to the final diagnosis of Lyme disease, not anywhere at the top of a proper differential in accordance with the eye pathology information given.

Watson, Medicine, and the future:

Nonetheless, IBM states Watson is only two years away for use in the medical setting, and believe Watson could be utilized in three different ways:

— Allowing a doctor to connect to Watson’s database by speaking into a hand-held device, using speech-recognition technology and cloud computing;
— Serving as a repository for the most advanced research in cancer or other fields;
— Providing an always-available second opinion.

IBM and Dr. Chase repeatedly stressed Watson’s potential for mobile use, even giving the following example:

You can imagine someone asking Watson a question on an iPad as they’re walking down the hall,” Chase said. “It might get updates like a GPS.

IBM and Dr. Chase’s perspective on Watson are ultimately grounded in reality as well.  They state how Watson could be used to provide a good differential diagnosis, along with quick mobile medical reference data at the bedside, and even plugging into the existing electronic health record to better formulate answers.

They appear to understand the limitations of Watson, and feel its utility truly lies in providing decision support — not “the decision”.  Echoing the sentiments of the conclusion of my prior article on Watson:

So could Watson be used in healthcare? As a decision support tool that is combined with an electronic medical record — sure. But to replace a physician – negative.

Source: Associated Press