5 min read

Matt Kowalski (in Gravity): Houston, in the blind.

Being an oncologist is a difficult job. Every year, 50,000 research papers are published on just Oncology. If an Oncologist were to read every one of them, it will take nearly 29 hours of reading every workday to stay updated on this plethora of information. Added to this is the challenge of dealing with nearly 1000 patients every year. Needless to say, a modern-day physician is bombarded with information that doubles every three years. This wide gap between the availability of information and the ability to access it in a manner that’s practically useful is simply getting wider.

No wonder doctors and other medical practitioners can feel overwhelmed and lost in space, sometimes!

Mission Control: Shariff, what’s your status?

Shariff: Nearly there.

Advances in the field of Big Data and cognitive computing are helping make strides in solving this kind of pressing problems facing the healthcare industry. IBM Watson is at the forefront of solving such scenarios and as time goes by the system will only become more robust.

From a strict technological standpoint, the new applications of Watson are impressive and groundbreaking: The system is capable of combing through 600,000 pieces of medical evidence, 2 million pages of text from 42 medical journals and clinical trials in the area of oncology research, and 1.5 million patient records to provide on-the-spot treatment recommendations to health care providers. According to IBM, more than 90 percent of the nurses who have worked with Watson follow the guidance the system gives to them. – Infoworld

Watson, who?

IBM Watson is an interactive expert system that uses cognitive computing, natural language processing, and evidence-based learning to arrive at answers to questions posed to it by its users in plain English. Watson doesn’t just stop with hypotheses generation but goes ahead and proposes a list of recommendations to the user.

Let’s pause and try to grasp what this means for a healthcare professional.

Imagine a doctor typing in his/her iPad “A cyst found in the under-arm of the patient and biopsy suggesting non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma”. With so many cancers and alternative treatments available to treat them, to zero down on the right cure at the right time is a tough job for an oncologist. IBM Watson taps into the collective wisdom of Oncology experts – practitioners, researchers, and academicians across the globe to understand the latest advances happening inside the rapidly evolving field of Oncology. It then culls out information most relevant to the patient’s particular situation after considering their medical history. Within minutes, Watson then comes up with various tailored approaches that the doctor can adopt to treat his/her patient.

Watson can help healthcare professionals narrow down on the right diagnosis, take informed and timely decisions and put in place treatment plans for their patients. All the doctor has to do is ask a question while mentioning the symptoms a patient is experiencing. This question-answer format is pretty revolutionary in that it can completely reshape how healthcare exists.

How is IBM Watson redefining Healthcare?

As more and more information is fed into IBM Watson, doctors will get highly customised recommendations to treat their patients. The impact on patient care and hospital cost can be tremendous.

For Healthcare professionals, Watson can

  • Reduce/Eliminate time spent by healthcare professionals on insight mining from an ever-growing body of research
  • Provide a list of recommended options for treatment with a score of confidence attached
  • Design treatment plans based on option chosen

In short, it can act as a highly effective personal assistant to this group. This means these professionals are more competent, more successful and have the time and energy to make deep personal connections with their patients thereby elevating patient care to a whole different level.

For patients, Watson can

  • Act an interactive interface answering their queries and connecting them with their healthcare professionals
  • Provide at home diagnostics and healthcare advice
  • Keep their patient records updated and synced up with their hospitals

Thus, Watson can help patients make informed medical choices, take better care of themselves and alleviate the stress and anxiety induced by a chaotic and opaque hospital environment.

For the healthcare industry, it means a reduction in overall cost to hospitals, reduced investment in post-treatment patient care, higher rates of success, reduction in errors due to oversight, misdiagnosis, and other human errors. This can indirectly improve key administrative metrics, lower employee burnout/churn rate, improve morale and result in other intangible benefits more.  

The implications of such a transformation are not limited to health care alone.

What about Insurance, Watson?

IBM Watson can have a substantial impact on insurance companies too. Insurance, a fiercely debated topic, is a major cost for healthcare. Increasing revenue potential, better customer relationship and reducing cost are some areas where Watson will start disrupting medical insurance. But that’s just the beginning. Tighter integration with hospitals, more data on patient care, and more information on newer remedies will provide ground-breaking insights to insurance companies. These insights will help them figure out the right premiums and the underwriting frameworks.

Moreover, the above is not a scene set in some distant future. In Japan, insurance company Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance replaced 34 employees and deployed IBM Watson. Customers of Fukoku can now directly discuss with an AI robot instead of a human being to settle payments. Fukoku made a one-time fee of $1,70,000 along with yearly maintenance of $1,28,000 to IBM for its Watson’s services. They plan to recover this cost by replacing their team of sales personnel, insurance agents, and customer care personnel – potentially saving nearly a million dollars in annual savings.

These are interesting times and some may even call it anxiety-inducing.

Shariff: No, no, no, Houston, don’t be anxious. Anxiety is bad for the heart.


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