Dr. Watson, I Presume?
In my January 24th blog post, Taming Medicare’s Budget Appetite, I mentioned Watson, IBM’s supercomputer Wellpoint purchased to help medical practitioners make diagnoses and prescribe treatment plans. Not satisfied with beating the two top Jeopardy game show champions, Watson has been busy learning how to be the best doctor on the planet.
Wellpoint has Watson sifting through case histories at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio learning about the human condition and medical care, much like a medical school student or resident physician, except at speeds incomprehensible to humans and with 100 percent retention. Watson can process 60 million pages of text per second, regardless of how it is formatted, and it can read data written in virtually any language without regard to prose or writing style. Moreover, it can recall and apply everything it reads. And, just as Watson got better at Jeopardy the more it played, it is getting better at figuring out medical problems and ways of treating them.
In an article published last year, Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, questioned whether algorithms would replace doctors. The Silicon Valley entrepreneur would later predict that computers and robots will replace four out of five physicians in the United States.
Is this another example of “necessity is the mother of invention?” That is, could Khosla’s prediction be the answer to our nation’s looming physician shortage? No one has yet come up with a definitive solution for the crisis. Specifically, by the end of this decade, we will need 17,000 more practicing physicians in California — 57,000 more in the U.S. — than our current education and training programs have the capacity to produce. If state legislatures allow it, engaging advance practice nurses, physician assistants, pharmacists and other allied health professionals in treating patients to the full extent of their training and scopes of their licenses will help but the projected shortage is just too large for that strategy alone to solve the problem.
Divining what this portends for the future of medicine is limited only by your imagination, but make no mistake about it, the next big thing in the delivery of medical care will be the new ways of accumulating, processing and applying data … led by Dr. Watson.