• May 1, 2013
  • By Leonard Klie Editor, Speech Technology and CRM magazines
  • FYI

IBM's Watson to Help Cancer Care

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Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York earlier this year began using IBM's speech-enabled supercomputer Watson to help doctors diagnose and treat several forms of cancer.

In this role, Watson--best known for taking down some of the biggest winners on the TV game show Jeopardy! about two years ago--will act as a voice-enabled physician's assistant, interpreting spoken queries and using statistical analysis to deliver "evidence-based, statistically ranked responses," according to IBM statements.

In a video demonstrating how Watson will be used, a doctor feeds Watson a patient's electronic health records (EHRs), and Watson runs the data through a database of thousands of medical journals, industry association guidelines, and hospital best practices to provide a list of treatment options (accompanied by confidence scores) and clinical trials for which the patient might be eligible.

Watson's voice recognition technology, provided by Nuance Communications, plays a part in the process, too, allowing the physician to add information by speaking to the system.

And while Nuance's speech technologies were likely used to create the patients' EHRs, the Sloan-Kettering project is more focused on data analysis and processing than speech recognition and synthesis, according to a Nuance spokesperson.

When the doctor and patient decide on a treatment option, the system automatically sends the plan to the patient's insurance company.

"Watson's capability to analyze huge volumes of data and reduce it down to critical decision points is absolutely essential to improve our ability to deliver effective therapies and disseminate them to the world," Dr. Craig Thompson, president and CEO of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, said in a statement.

Before introducing the technology, IBM and the cancer treatment facility worked for about a year to hone Watson's skills in this area.

"Memorial Sloan-Kettering's evidence-based clinical approach, scientific acumen, and vast database make it the ideal partner in this ambitious project," said Dr. Martin Kohn, chief medical scientist at IBM, in the statement. "This field of clinical information, given its importance on both a human and economic level, is exactly the type of grand challenge IBM Watson can help address."

Nuance, which already has a big footprint in the healthcare market, also was involved in the research and development. IBM and Nuance as early as February 2011 launched a five-year research program to commercialize Watson for the healthcare industry and advance next-generation natural language speech technologies.

"The combination of Nuance's speech recognition and existing Clinical Language Understanding solutions with the power of IBM's Watson technology will introduce unmatched clinical information and analytic technological advancements for healthcare," Nuance Chairman and CEO Paul Ricci said in a statement at the time. "The initiative represents a logical step in Nuance's evolution, one that expands our capabilities from recognizing what was said to understanding the intent and providing guidance. The solutions we are developing with IBM will transform the capture, flow, and use of clinical data, empowering healthcare organizations to drive smarter, more efficient clinical and business decisions."

Several other organizations, including Columbia University Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine, are participating in that effort.

IBM is also looking to expand Watson's use, partnering with financial institutions to teach Watson the business of retail and institutional banking.

"Watson has the potential to transform many industries," says Katharine Frase, vice president of industry solutions and emerging business at IBM Research.

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