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Watson got its first job! IBM has been looking for a way to put the supercomputer system to work ever since it beat Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter back in February 2011 (for more background information on Watson and the Jeopardy face-off, see Christine Hawes’s June 23, 2010 blog post). Following through on its initial target for use in the medical industry, Watson will now be working with Well Point Inc., the nation’s largest health insurance company (based on enrollment figures), which operates
Blue Cross Blue Shield plans for fourteen states. Watson will eventually help the insurance giant choose treatment options and medicines for patients, but first it has to bone up on its medical knowledge, absorbing a library of medical textbooks and journals along with WellPoint’s history of approved medications and treatments. Then, once a doctor verbally tells Watson about a patient’s medical history and symptoms, the system will sift through its vast universe of information to come up with a list of the most likely diseases for diagnosis, ranked in order of its confidence in the answers. Once it is up and running, doctors should be able to access the application from their computers or hand-held devices to assess their patients’ complaints.
While some are praising this new advance in technology as a way for doctors to get a handle on the ever-growing wealth of medical information, others are wary about the potential abuses of this new use for the system. Initial tests have shown that Watson comes up with obscure diseases and can drastically change its projected diagnoses the more information it gets about a patient, which can lead doctors all over the map as they try to figure out their patients’ ailments. In addition, many doctors already use similar programs, such as Isabel or UpToDate, to come up with diagnoses and treatment options. And with the recent debut of Apple’s Siri program in its iPhone 4S, it seems that other voice-activated search programs will soon be on the horizon and could be applied to the medical field.
More worrisome is the potential for the insurance company to deny benefits or restrict approved treatments or medications based on what Watson says. This possible abuse has already proven to be a problem with various insurance companies’ use of other computer systems for both health and property claims, strategically undervaluing claims to maximize profit for the company and leaving the insured to foot the remainder of the bill. Additionally, there is the risk that someone could hack into the centralized computer system and expose people’s private medical information, which is not only used for treatment of that individual but also stored to help in diagnosing others. As the insurance field becomes more technologically advanced, it appears that it will also require greater oversight so that we can reap the benefits of the system while avoiding the risks. Until such protections are put in place, it seems that not everyone will “welcome our new computer overlords.”
– Kendall Short
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