New Health Care: Putting More Intelligence in Your Doctor's Hands

Health care is long due for transformation. Although treatments may not change dramatically, the way physicians make decisions will. While technology has changed the way we do everything -- from buying groceries to booking travel -- health care remains stubbornly resistant to change.

Medicine has moved into the 21st century, but many aspects of health care have not. Doctors still often write prescriptions by hand, which has vast potential for errors. Most medical records are still on paper and difficult to access. The processes by which medical claims are filed and paid are woefully archaic.

At the same time, the rapidly increasing volume of medical data makes it almost impossible for doctors to keep up with current knowledge. (Conventional wisdom is that the amount of medical knowledge doubles every five years.) Medical journals, clinical decision support systems and the Internet are helpful support systems, but they have their limits. The information in a doctor's notes about an individual patient, for example, is not readily accessible. Nor can any piece of relevant research be accessed at a moment's notice since online content isn't organized for efficient extraction. Technology has already dramatically changed medicine but much more can be done. Taking a smarter approach to healthcare requires something new.

IBM's Watson, the computer system that competed on "Jeopardy!" earlier this year, stands to dramatically change the way clinicians get information. It can absorb millions of pages of text from thousands of different sources -- including patient interviews, lab reports, university research, newspapers, medical journals, transcripts of calls and consultations, etc. -- and it can make sense of the information. It understands puns and colloquialisms and is not stumped by spelling errors or incorrect grammar. By reviewing many information sources, analyzing as many as 200 million pages of content in three seconds, it can offer prioritized suggestions to doctors and nurses to help them make more knowledgeable decisions.

While this technology could never replace a doctor, it could serve as an invaluable tool for doctors to use. It not only retains millions of pages of information, it has the ability to analyze a conversation with a patient and note critical pieces of information -- such as drug interactions or family histories -- and ask for additional information that might have been overlooked. This could help reduce misdiagnoses and delayed diagnosis which today account for an estimated 15 to 20 percent of medical errors.

If it sounds like some futuristic technology that will never make it past the "interesting idea" stage, at least one health insurer already plans to put Watson to practical use. WellPoint Inc. forged a long-term deal with IBM to deploy the system -- as early as next year -- to support doctors and nurses. By helping reduce erroneous diagnoses and recommending the most effective treatment options, the insurer expects to help keep its members healthier.

This is a win-win-win situation for patients, insurers and medical professionals. Medical errors resulting in injuries are estimated to cost between $17 billion and $29 billion annually. In many cases, the financial cost is trivial; by one account, at least 44,000 Americans die every year as a result of a medical error. Watson isn't a cure-all -- it can't solve the health care crisis, nor can it prevent people from getting sick, but it can help doctors manage information overload, thereby allowing them to more effectively treat patients.

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