No more fun and games

INDIANAPOLIS – Now that is has proven itself by beating the top two champions of the television game show Jeopardy! IBM's Watson technology is poised for its first commercial opportunity via a partnership with health insurance giant WellPoint that should see it providing clinical support to doctors as early as the first quarter of 2012.

For IBM, entering the healthcare market with Watson was a well-planned transition from a game-show appearance publicity stunt. According to Dan Pelino, general manager of IBM healthcare and life sciences, the company currently has roughly 60 MDs working at the company to help provide a physician's perspective on how Watson can best fit in a clinical setting. It has also reached out to broad swath industry groups, including the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American College of Physicians, among others, to get input on how Watson can best assist doctors in their jobs.

"First of all we always want to make sure that we position Watson in an assist role," Pelino said. "We are not talking about Dr. Watson. (One doctor) has called it a chart reviewer, others have said that it is a medical resident that will do research on your behalf and come up and help you make decisions."

That approach should help allay the concerns of Jason Koma, a spokesperson for the Ohio State Medical Association, who wants the Watson technology to play a supporting role, rather than the lead.

"The real question here is that the physician patient relationship is a sacred one," Koma said. "Watson should be a tool to help that. There are many interactions that lead to quality of care and one of those is direct interaction with a doctor."

WellPoint intends to preserve that direct interaction. But it also sees opportunity to help doctors in its network gain fast access to the deep and ever-growing body of medical literature in order to make better care decisions, said Lori Beer, WellPoint's executive vice president, enterprise business services, who attended the Jeopardy! tapings and saw first hand the power of the technology.

"We realized the potential of Watson in healthcare, and IBM has realized the potential in healthcare," she said. "If you look at the fact that WellPoint has 34 million members, we have a lot of healthcare data and bringing together that data, our broad provider network and the work we are trying to drive around outcomes-based clearly says we are the right partner and want to be the first commercial application of Watson."

Those first applications will tackle what the two companies are calling "use cases," complex medical conditions that often provide many different potential paths for treatment. The first use cases for Watson will be developed for a handful of oncology treatments, ones that are both tricky to diagnose and treat. The intention is for Watson to be used as a research assistant – one that has the ability to analyze more than 1 million books or 200 million pages of data and deliver an answer in roughly three seconds. After this analysis, Watson can then present a number of treatment options in recommended order of efficacy, along with citations from the medical literature to supports its conclusions.

"This is not simply an Internet search," Pelino added. "Watson can learn over time and has the ability to understand language, so over time it can continue to improve on the answers it gives."

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