Jeopardy!’s Watson Computer and Healthcare

I’m sure like many of you, I was completely intrigued by the demonstration of the Watson computer competing against the best Jeopardy! stars. It was amazing to watch not only how Watson was able to come up with the answer, but also how quickly it was able to reach the correct answer.

The hype at the IBM booth at HIMSS was really strong since it had been announced that healthcare was one of the first places that IBM wanted to work on implementing the “Watson” technology (read more about the Watson Technology in Healthcare in this AP article). Although, I found the most interesting conversation about Watson in the Nuance booth when I was talking to Dr. Nick Van Terheyden. The idea of combining the Watson technology with the voice recognition and natural language processing technologies that Nuance has available makes for a really compelling product offering.

One of the keys in the AP article above and was also mentioned by Dr. Nick from Nuance was that the Watson technology in healthcare would be applied differently than it was on Jeopardy!. In healthcare it wouldn’t try and make the decision and provide the correct answer for you. Instead, the Watson technology would be about providing you a number of possible answers and the likelihood of that answer possibly being the issue.

Some of this takes me back to Neil Versel’s posts about Clinical Decision Support and doctors resistance to CDS. There’s no doubt that the Watson technology is another form of Clinical Decision Support, but there’s little about the Watson technology which takes power away from the doctor’s decision making. It certainly could have an influence on a doctor’s ability to provide care, but that’s a great thing. Not that I want doctors constantly second guessing themselves. Not that I want doctors relying solely on the information that Watson or some other related technology provides. It’s like most clinical tools. When used properly, they can provide a great benefit to the doctor using them. When used improperly, it can lead to issues. However, it’s quite clear that Watson technology does little to take away from the decision making of doctors. In fact, I’d say it empowers doctors to do what they do better.

Personally I’m very excited to see technologies like Watson implemented in healthcare. Plus, I think we’re just at the beginning of what will be possible with this type of computing.

About the author

John Lynn

John Lynn

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com, a network of leading Healthcare IT resources. The flagship blog, Healthcare IT Today, contains over 13,000 articles with over half of the articles written by John. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 20 million times.

John manages Healthcare IT Central, the leading career Health IT job board. He also organizes the first of its kind conference and community focused on healthcare marketing, Healthcare and IT Marketing Conference, and a healthcare IT conference, EXPO.health, focused on practical healthcare IT innovation. John is an advisor to multiple healthcare IT companies. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can be found on Twitter: @techguy.

8 Comments

  • As it is, many physicians practices that we speak to have said that they are stongly considering retiring (the older docs) or just folding up their practices when they can no longer adequately compensate for the penalties, rather than implement EMR.. If technology wasn’t already scaring them out their business… Watson will make them question their existence. While the intent was to migrate the industry off paper and into the 21st century, procrastination has bitten them hard in the keester. Will we see a wave of practices closing over the next few years?

  • Yes, I’ve seen some of the same Gerry. There is a large group of doctors that will never adopt. Although, the new set of doctors are the opposite. They can’t imagine a practice without an EMR.

    It will be interesting to watch that dynamic play out.

  • Gerry, the CDS post of mine that John links to quotes a doc who thinks some of the older guard does need to go away. The status quo doesn’t work, yet some won’t let go of it.

  • The other point that Watson’s Jeopardy appearance drove home, even though it smashed the competition, is that the most advanced state of AI that we have today still needs human review and intervention for those “???” moments when the computer just hasn’t synthesized that information yet.

    This will not be going away anytime soon.

    That being said, I think this technology is geared in the rather long term towards making doctors obsolete over time — and every other skilled profession, too. So doctors won’t be feeling all alone in their own obsolescence. It will be all of us.

  • Steven,
    How do you feel about the idea of robots/computers taking over the world?

    I think you actually point out the reason that doctors won’t be obsolete: There’s still a need for human review and intervention. What will happen is that what we know as a doctor will absolutely change over time. The way the doctor helps you will be drastically changed by computers.

  • As one of the losing contestants said, “I for one welcome our new robot overlords.”

    In all seriousness, I do have a cynical side about the desire to replace as much skilled labor as possible with cheap robotics, to better serve the owning class, but I don’t think that’s the way it has to be, and I don’t think it will be feasible for a long time still.

    there’s always the hope that it will be more like Star Trek; the doc waves the tricorder over the patient’s chest and gets an instant diagnosis.

  • I’d definitely buy a tricorder. Maybe I could patent it;-)

    I agree that at least in our lifetimes it’s unlikely to go beyond some really amazing technological tools.

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