NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Computer as Doctor

February 17, 2011

Starting Monday, Jeopardy will air three episodes in which "Watson," a supercomputer developed by IBM, is a contestant.  What viewers might not realize when they watch the quiz show's first man vs. machine competition is that they might be catching a glimpse of technology that could radically transform health care delivery within the next decade, says Yong Suh, a medical student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

  • While computer systems to assist clinical decision-making have existed for decades, adoption of legacy systems has been hindered by rigid algorithms that require translation of natural language into machine language and heavy reliance on user input.
  • What sets Watson apart is that it could take facts gathered in natural language from a patient exam and generate possible diagnoses ranked by levels of confidence based on its understanding of medical knowledge in textbooks, research papers, case reports and other sources that are used by human physicians.
  • Watson combines what has long been a strength of computers -- perfect prompted recall from an expansive volume of knowledge -- with what has been considered to be the sole province of man -- ability to process natural language.

Watson has the potential of addressing two pressing problems in health care today: deaths due to medical errors and shortage of physicians, says Suh.

Medical errors:

  • According to a report by the Institute of Medicine, as many as 98,000 deaths annually are due to medical errors in hospitals, making it the fifth leading cause of death in the United States.
  • Misdiagnosis can lead to unnecessary patient suffering or death and is often the result of cognitive errors committed by physicians.

Physician shortage:

  • With a knowledge base limited only by how much medical literature is available in natural language, Watson could close the knowledge gap between physicians and nonphysician health care providers.
  • This would empower nonphysician medical professionals to assume a greater role in patient care and help alleviate a shortage of physicians.

Source: Yong Suh, "'Watson' Could Transform Medicine," USA Today, February 15, 2011.

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