Could supercomputers like IBM’s Watson be a physician’s new best friend?

Martin Kohn, M.D., chief medical scientist, Care Delivery Systems for IBM Research, says Watson can help physicians wade through the meaningless data to find what’s important to patients.


Ninety percent of the data that currently exists in the world is less than two years old, which means everything is new. For the majority of physicians, what they read, is two or three journals that they subscribe to or think are most relevant to their practice. In 2010 the National Library of Medicine cataloged 700,000 new articles. There is information there that would be helpful to you that you never will read, see, learn, or memorize.

We need support such as Watson and other analytical tools because the amount of information that is out there, it overwhelms us. We can't even conceive of it let alone use it. So Watson is a computer system that reads and understands English, which is a major advance. There are lots of tools that can recognize certain words or patterns of words, but Watson actually understands the meaning of an English statement or an English document.

Any clinician patient-relationship is a key to the future of health care. Disrupting that would be distinctly disadvantageous. Patients really aren't interested in having tools make decisions for them but providing them advice or ideas, along with their clinician, to help both of them make a better decision.

So that's what Watson does, it understands the nature of the question to be addressed then does all this reading and says, "'These are the important concepts, I think, for you to consider in making your decisions."' That's the key part, it helps you decide by giving you information that you can use with your skills and expertise to make it more likely to have an evidence-supported decision.

So that's where these algorithms come in. Recognizing that in this complex data, there are patterns and clues and signs that we can use to make better decisions that we can't process ourselves. At the heart of Watson is hundreds and hundreds of such algorithms.

In organizations such as the University of Utah are developing this algorithmic approach because we know that if we are going to use that data effectively we have to develop the mathematical and computer tools that collect and process that information for us and present it to us in a way that we can use when the mass amount of data is something we can't use.