IBM’s Watson supercomputer to give instant medical diagnoses


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Instant diagnosis?

That’s the idea behind a new partnership between insurance giant WellPoint Inc. and IBM.

WellPoint, the nation’s largest insurer by membership, is tapping IBM’s Watson supercomputer to diagnose medical illnesses and to recommend treatment options for patients within seconds in a new system that will debut at several cancer cancers early next year.

Executives at the two companies say that Watson, best known for defeating “Jeopardy!” quiz champions on the popular television game show this year, can sift through millions of pages of data and produce diagnoses virtually on the spot.


WellPoint said the computer system will not supplant doctors but instead provide them with instant information to make better decisions to improve the quality of care and save money.

The company, with 34.2 million members in 14 states, also said Watson will not be used to make decisions about reimbursing patients or doctors for the cost of treatments.

“Physicians really need tools to get better quality answers,” said Lori Beer, a WellPoint executive vice president in charge of the initiative. “We see this as a tool to help them be more successful in driving better outcomes for our members. We’re not trying to replace the physician.”

Beer said that WellPoint and doctors involved in the project will each supply patient information for the computer system. The data will be supplemented by medical journals, textbooks and other sources.

Watson will be able to analyze 1 million books, or roughly 200 million pages of information, and provide responses in less than three seconds, according to leaders of the project.

That’s important, they say, given the challenge faced by doctors to keep up with an explosion of medical information.


“Watson has tremendous potential for applications that improve the efficiency of care and reduce wait times for diagnosis and treatment by enabling clinicians with access to the best clinical data the moment they need it,” IBM executive Manoj Saxena said in a statement.


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-- Duke Helfand