Paging Doctor Watson
November 5, 2012 Jenny Thomas
While it is unlikely that Watson will be seeing patients any time soon, IBM researchers want to focus on Watson’s question answering technology, which enables the Jeopardy! champ to analyze the meaning and context of human language and quickly find important correlations between facts buried within huge volumes of data, ultimately assisting healthcare workers to make better decisions about patient care. Performing differential diagnosis–the kind of thing that House MD does with a mean streak–is, as The Four Hundred has reported previously, the first and perhaps most important role for the Watson system.
To get Watson’s new medical career on the fast track, IBM needed to find a unique partner. The Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit multi-specialty academic medical center that integrates clinical and hospital care with research and education. Founded in 1912 in Cleveland, Ohio, the Cleveland Clinic has been a pioneer behind many medical breakthroughs, including coronary artery bypass surgery and the first face transplant in the United States. It employs about 2,800 full-time salaried physicians and researchers, and 11,000 nurses in 120 medical specialties and sub-specialties. The Cleveland Clinic Health System includes a main campus near downtown Cleveland, eight community hospitals, and 18 family health centers in northeast Ohio, Florida, Nevada, and Canada, not to mention Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, which will open in 2013.
This mix of seasoned medical expertise and ready-to-learn students, along with its wealth of experience, made the Cleveland Clinic the perfect prescription for Watson.
The first step was to integrate Watson’s abilities into the learning process. Today’s medical students are learning through doing, rather than attempting to memorize everything in text books and medical journals (now acknowledged as an impossible task).
“Every day, physicians and scientists around the world add more and more information to what I think of as an ever-expanding, global medical library,” said C. Martin Harris, M.D., who is chief information officer of the Cleveland Clinic. “Technology like [Watson] can allow us to leverage that medical library to help train our students and also find new ways to address the public health challenges we face today.”
David Ferrucci, IBM Fellow and principal investigator of the Watson project, says the way students learn needs to keep up with how rapidly the practice of medicine is evolving. “In the real world, medical case scenarios should rely on people’s ability to quickly find and apply the most relevant knowledge,” said Ferrucci. “Finding and evaluating multi-step paths through the medical literature is required to identify evidence in support of potential diagnoses and treatment options.”
The arduous process of considering multiple medical factors and discovering and evidencing solution paths in large volumes of data reflects the core capabilities of the Watson technology. Medical students will interact with Watson on challenging cases as part of a problem-based learning curriculum and in hypothetical clinical simulations. A collaborative learning and training tool utilizing the Watson technology will be available to medical students to teach them how to navigate the latest content, while suggesting and considering a variety of hypotheses and finding key evidence to support potential answers, diagnoses, and possible treatment options.
Ferrucci says interacting with the faculty and students at the Cleveland Clinic will also demonstrate how to more efficiently teach and adapt Watson to a new field. Students will help improve Watson’s language and domain analysis capabilities by judging the evidence it provides and analyzing its answers within the domain of medicine.
Over time, the expectation is that Watson will get “smarter” about medical language and how to assemble good chains of evidence from available content. Students will learn how to focus on critical thinking skills and how to best leverage informational tools like Watson in helping them learn how to diagnose and treat patients.
Getting a diagnosis from Watson, M.D., would be an interesting experience, but you have to wonder where he will carry his stethoscope.