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IBM's Watson Heads for Clinics, Spurring Debate

Scott Mace, for HealthLeaders Media, February 12, 2013

In healthcare, Watson is being trained and tested first in the oncology clinics of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, located 30 miles away from IBM's development laboratories in Yorktown Heights, New York.

For months, I've nosed around for more details about Watson's role in healthcare, but those hospitals that are working with IBM are under strict nondisclosure agreements, and are press-shy. But last week, Kohn made a lap around Silicon Valley, speaking at the FutureMed conference and then at an event hosted by Triple Ring Technologies, a startup incubator. I caught both talks.

Both audiences were peppered with physicians, such as one from Stanford Medical School, who I chatted with at Triple Ring. He remarked to me that he wasn't overly impressed yet with Watson.

I would expect physicians to be wary of Watson. Reports of its projected diagnostic prowess have fed fevered speculation that artificial intelligence is at long last about to make doctors obsolete, will turn healthcare over to a set of algorithms, and will allow technology to replace a clinician's gut instinct.

But Kohn and IBM insist that's not Watson's role. A second effort with healthcare payer Wellpoint, touted by that company last week, may place Watson in a more centralized decision-making role, allowing or disallowing requested procedures based on Wellpoint's own use of Watson to scour medical literature to support or challenge a doctor's diagnosis or recommended treatment.

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3 comments on "IBM's Watson Heads for Clinics, Spurring Debate"


bobstucco (2/18/2013 at 11:40 AM)
You're right about someone needing to do the hands-on evaluation, but with Watson, would that person still need to be a board-certified physician?

Jeff (2/16/2013 at 9:06 AM)
The phrase "thought he knew most everything" speaks volumes. Many physicians I know suffer from the cognitive bias of over-confidence, to the detriment of patients. Where Watson truly shines is in avoiding the cognitive biases that plague us humans.

J.Lord (2/14/2013 at 4:52 PM)
As a patient, I would welcome any technology that could diagnose and suggest treatment based on both historic and the most current data. No physician has the time to stay 100% current on all treatment options. We'll always need practitioners to do the human-to-human part of the exam [INVALID]'hands-on' and eye-to-eye feedback [INVALID] that machines will never replace.