February 9, 2013 in Business

Jeopardy! computer powers up for cancer

Quiz show victor gets job recommending treatments
Jim Fitzgerald Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Dr. Mark Kris, left, chief of thoracic oncology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and Manoj Saxena, IBM general manager of Watson Solutions, demonstrate a tablet to access medical applications on IBM’s “Watson” computer system Friday in Armonk, N.Y.
(Full-size photo)

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. – Dr. Watson is accepting new patients.

The Watson supercomputer is graduating from its medical residency and is being offered commercially to doctors and health insurance companies, IBM said Friday.

IBM Corp., the health insurer WellPoint Inc. and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center announced two Watson-based applications – one to help assess treatments for lung cancer and one to help manage health insurance decisions and claims.

Both applications take advantage of the speed, huge database and language skill the computer demonstrated in defeating the best human “Jeopardy!” players on television two years ago.

Armonk-based IBM said Watson has improved its performance by 240 percent since the “Jeopardy!” win.

In both applications, doctors or insurance company workers will access Watson through a tablet or computer. Watson will quickly compare a patient’s medical records to what it has learned and make several recommendations in decreasing order of confidence.

In the cancer program, the computer will be considering what treatment is most likely to succeed. In the insurance program, it will consider what treatment should be authorized for payment.

Watson – actually named for IBM founder Thomas Watson and not Sherlock Holmes’ friend – has been trained in medicine through pilot programs at Indianapolis-based WellPoint and at Sloan-Kettering in New York.

Manoj Saxena, an IBM general manager, said the supercomputer has ingested 1,500 lung cancer cases from Sloan-Kettering records, plus 2 million pages of text from journals, textbooks and treatment guidelines.

It also learned “like a medical student,” by being corrected when it was questioned by doctors and came up with wrong answers, Saxena said in an interview.

“Watson is not making the decisions” on treatment or authorization, Saxena said. “It is essentially reducing the effort for doctors and nurses by going through thousands of pages of information for each case.”

The lung cancer program is being adopted by two medical groups, the Maine Center for Cancer Medicine and WestMed in New York’s Westchester County. Saxena said it should be running at both groups by next month.

WellPoint itself is already using the insurance application in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Wisconsin.

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