Published: June 11th, 2013

LAS VEGAS — What to do when modern health care becomes too complicated for doctors and nurses? If IBM gets its way, there may soon be an app for that.

While IBM’s Watson supercomputer is probably best known for beating the Jeopardy champions, Big Blue has always had higher hopes for young Watson than just winning game shows. The first commercial application IBM has chosen for Watson is health care, and Dr. Samuel R. Nussbaum, the chief medical officer of WellPoint, a U.S. managed health care provider, was on hand at IBM’s Edge conference to discuss how the company is working with IBM and Watson to improve patient outcomes.

It’s both the best and worst of times in modern health care, said Nussbaum. Spectacular scientific advances are being made, the human genome has been mapped, and new technologies and medicines are being developed. Yet obesity and diabetes are exploding, costs are rising, and the quality of health care delivered doesn’t match the quality of the science available. In fact, he said a Rand study identified a huge variation in care – visiting a doctor, you have a 55 per cent chance if getting the right care.

“It’s like flipping a coin,” said Nussbaum.

There’s also too much information for doctors to absorb, and not enough time to do it.

“Medical information is doubling every five years; it’s impossible to keep up with the science,” said Nussbaum.

Dr. Samuel R. Nussbaum, WellPoint's chief medical officer
Dr. Samuel R. Nussbaum, WellPoint’s chief medical officer

IBM and WellPoint hope to use technology and Watson, to help remove some of the wasteful processes from the current system, and free up time for medical professionals. They’re working to train Watson to think the way a clinician thinks, which they can do thanks to its ability to understand natural language, ingest large amounts of information, understand evidence, rank sources, generate and evaluate hypotheses, and adopt and learn from new information.

They’re working to take all the patient and other medical information they have available and feed it into Watson. Everything from lab data and real-time pharmacy information to patient records and historical outcomes, as well as claims-based algorithms used to identify gaps in care.

“All of that information is collected and integrated into what we call a longitudinal patient record,” said Nussbaum.

Watson has been trained on WellPoint’s medical policies for prior authorization of care around its highest volume procedures. It’s being tested with physicians in the Mid-West and Nussbaum said it’s making the right call in the high 80 per cent range – they want to get it into the high 90s. When they’ve got it right, he said it should remove costs, enable faster care, and help identify gaps in care that could lead to better outcomes, since Watson can draw on the latest research and trends the doctor may not be up to date on.

“It will allow better and more informed physician decision-making at the point of care,” said Nussbaum.

The other initial focus area for IBM and Watson in the health care space is oncology, or cancer care. Each person’s cancer is more complex than was originally thought, said Nussbaum. It’s becoming a complex array of illnesses, each requiring different treatments, and he said even the best oncologists don’t always follow the best standard of care. IBM is working with experts at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, a private cancer care centre in New York City, to leverage 1.5 million patient records and decades of longitudinal data to synthesize patient data with standard guidelines and best practices.

“We can help guide physicians and patients to the most effective treatments,” said Nussbaum. “Many guidelines about cancer are not patient-specific. With Watson, we can take what is specific to (each patient).”

It’s a promising and intriguing vision of how technology could help drive better outcomes in health care. I’ll take Dr. Watson for 500, Alex.