IBM putting Watson to work in health insurance

Sep 12, 2011 JIM FITZGERALD , Associated Press
A Jan. 13, 2011 file photo provided by IBM shows the IBM computer system known as Watson at IBM's T.J. Watson research center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Watson is being tapped by one of the nation's largest health insurers, WellPoint Inc., to help diagnose medical problems and authorize treatments. (AP Photo/IBM)

Enough with the fun and games. Watson is going to work. IBM's supercomputer system, best known for trouncing the world's best "Jeopardy!" players on TV, is being tapped by one of the nation's largest health insurers to help diagnose medical problems and authorize treatments.

WellPoint Inc., which has 34.2 million members, will integrate Watson's lightning speed and deep health care database into its existing , helping it choose among treatment options and medicines.

"This very much fits into the sweet spot of what we envisioned for the applications of Watson," said Manoj Saxena, general manager of an IBM division looking at how the computer can be marketed.

Lori Beer, an executive vice president at Indianapolis-based WellPoint, agreed.

"It's really a game-changer in health care," she said.

The WellPoint application will combine data from three sources: a patient's chart and that a doctor or hospital has, the insurance company's history of medicines and treatments, and Watson's huge library of textbooks and .

IBM says the computer can then sift through it all and answer a question in moments, providing several possible diagnoses or treatments, ranked in order of the computer's confidence, along with the basis for its answer.

"Imagine having the ability within three seconds to look through all of that information, to have it be up to date, scientifically presented to you, and based on that patients' medical needs at the moment you're caring for that patient," said WellPoint's chief medical officer, Dr. Sam Nussbaum.

Saxena said the WellPoint application would likely be accessed from an ordinary computer or hand-held device.

Beer said patients needn't worry that Watson will be used to help insurers deny benefits.

"We're really trying to bring providers a tool that's successful, that helps drive better outcomes, which is how we want to reimburse physicians in the future," Beer said.

Nussbaum said a pilot program will be rolled out early next year at several cancer centers, academic medical centers and oncology practices.

WellPoint is the nation's largest publicly traded health insurer based on enrollment. It operates Blue Cross Blue Shield plans in 14 states, including New York and California.

Neither party would say how much Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM is being paid. Saxena said it's the first money Watson has earned for the company; the $1 million it won on "!" earlier this year was given to charity.

Watson's next jobs will probably also be in health care, but financial services and public safety applications are on the horizon, Saxena said.

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NotAsleep
5 / 5 (2) Sep 12, 2011
"Beer said patients needn't worry that Watson will be used to help insurers deny benefits"

...yet
Scottingham
5 / 5 (2) Sep 12, 2011
At least Watson won't get corrupted by bonuses and incentives to deny care...
pauljpease
5 / 5 (2) Sep 12, 2011
At least Watson won't get corrupted by bonuses and incentives to deny care...


No, but it's programmers might be...
axemaster
not rated yet Sep 12, 2011
At least Watson won't get corrupted by bonuses and incentives to deny care...

Oh yeah, sure. They totally won't code it to make them more money. Of course not.
nayTall
1 / 5 (1) Sep 12, 2011
the fact that it's in the hands of present day health insurance companies makes me wonder if ray kurzweil is right on the money or detrimentally, astoundingly wrong..
CSharpner
not rated yet Sep 12, 2011
The WellPoint application will combine data from [...] the insurance company's history of medicines and treatments

If the insurance company, as a matter of practice, denies certain treatments and medicines, then those won't be in its "history" and therefore Watson can easily be used to deny treatment, because they were simply not provided to it.

Now, I know Blue Cross and I know they're a not for profit (or "non-profit"... I always get those two mixed up), so I trust them more than any other health insurance for-profit company I know. That's not a resounding praise, BTW, but if I /had/ to trust one, it'd be Blue Cross.

And no, I have no problem with insurance companies being profitable as I'm very pro capitalism, so don't count me in the crowd that's always calling insurance companies "evil". I'm simply pointing out, from the text above, that logically, Watson /could/ be used to deny treatments or medications.
Urgelt
not rated yet Sep 12, 2011
Since when do insurers get to diagnose illnesses and decide on treatments? Isn't that what doctors are for?

I would expect some pushback from consumers and physicians on this one.
RayInLv
not rated yet Sep 12, 2011
It has been pointed out that Auto-Pilot in Airliners is creating pilots which are not as good as they used to be.

Let's hope this does not do the same thing to our Medical people.
Telekinetic
1 / 5 (1) Sep 12, 2011
The "Health" industry is akin to Eisenhower's "Military Industrial Complex."
jdbertron
1 / 5 (1) Sep 12, 2011
Watson is a parrot. Nothing more. Except maybe a publicity stunt.
You can only get out what was put in. Considering that eggs were bad for you in the 90's and good for you in the 2000's it'll be a long time before I trust a parrot with a recommendation on cancer treatment.
Physmet
not rated yet Sep 13, 2011
It sounds like the patient visits the doctor and the doctor suggests a solution. The insurance company, rather than accepting the doctor's recommendation, will then use Watson to come up with possible alternatives based on patient specific health history. My guess is that they're hoping to cover the cheaper alternatives rather than the more expensive one recommend by the doctor. At least that's my cynical view.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Sep 13, 2011
Watson is a parrot. Nothing more. Except maybe a publicity stunt.
You can only get out what was put in.

So how exactly do you think doctors perform their diagnosis? The collect symptoms and match that against their knowledge of diseases.

What the brain does (on that level) is really not much different from what Watson does: pattern matching.
CarolinaScotsman
not rated yet Sep 13, 2011
Since when do insurers get to diagnose illnesses and decide on treatments? Isn't that what doctors are for?

I would expect some pushback from consumers and physicians on this one.

They've been doing exactly that for years. It's not the doctor who decides how long you are in the hospital, it's the insurance company. If the insurance company won't approve a treatment, it isn't used. The companies already tell doctors what they can and can not do. Nothing new, now they will use a computer to make it seem "scientific". They don't care about good medicine, only better profits.

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