Could IBM’s Watson Be a Doctor’s Best Sidekick?

Artificial intelligence goes to school at Cleveland Clinic

It takes a big brain to win on Jeopardy, and IBM’s artificial intelligence Watson proved its mental merits by doing so in 2011. Now Watson is Cleveland Clinic’s newest medical student. One day, Watson could help your doctor make better decisions about your health and treatment.

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IBM and Cleveland Clinic are partnering on projects that put the computer’s processing power — the equivalent of a million books per second — to the test in a medical setting. Both medical students at the Lerner College of Medicine and physicians will be working with Watson over the next three years.

“Watson could be the perfect sidekick for doctors,” says Neil Mehta, MD, who is working on the Watson project. “It’s like Captain Kirk on Star Trek. He asks the computer a question and gets answers, but in the end, he’s still making the decisions.”

Here’s why Watson could be the perfect assistant:

Watson can learn and evolve

To prepare for Jeopardy, Watson devoured encyclopedias, books, magazines and newspapers. At Cleveland Clinic, medical experts will feed it textbooks, journals, research papers and more. The first step is to fill the computer with enough medical know-how to answer questions correctly. 

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“Medical students will learn even as they’re helping Watson learn and refine its algorithms,” Dr. Mehta says.

Watson can map out smart decisions

Watson uses a process called “deep question answering.” It breaks down a question into various factors, then offers multiple answers.

Dr. Mehta offers a possible example: A student tells Watson about a 30-year-old male patient who comes back from a trip to Africa, then experiences fever and a rash for weeks. Watson will sort through all of the factors and data, from the patient’s history to geography to textbooks about tropical medicine, then offer a few possible diagnoses.

“It creates an inference graph — like a mind map — to explain what logic led it to the final choices,” Dr. Mehta says. Students and doctors can match their own knowledge to Watson’s answers. And if they add and subtract factors, the answers will change in real time.

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Watson could be a physician’s best assistant

Sorting through electronic health records before seeing a patient can be a challenge, even for the best doctors. “To find all of this information from the electronic health record, if you do a thorough job, it can take about 10 to 15 minutes,” Dr. Mehta notes. “We’re hoping Watson can help do it in seconds.”

Watson can search and understand natural language. So, in theory, the computer could search every single note entered by a nurse or surgeon, know what medications were given at what time, and know exactly what was happening when an incident occurred. If a doctor wants to know whether a patient with heartburn needs an endoscopy or just a prescription drug, Watson will present the recommended guidelines to help the doctor make the correct choice.

Dr. Mehta points out that the whole project may look different in three years — it will evolve just as the computer does. But he is hopeful about Watson’s future in medicine: “We believe Watson has a very helpful role to play for physicians, and for patient care.”

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