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IBM’s Watson supercomputer finally ready for health care debut

WellPoint will unveil the commercial systems gleaned from reams of data digested by the “Jeopardy!” whiz.

By Pamela Lewis Dolan — Posted Feb. 25, 2013

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It’s been two years since IBM announced that its supercomputer, Watson, would end its game show career as the first nonhuman contestant on “Jeopardy!” and enter the health care industry. But some physicians soon will see Watson in use in their practices and hospitals.

Insurance giant WellPoint, through partnerships with IBM and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, is rolling out three commercial Watson-based products. The products are the result of two pilot programs WellPoint announced in 2011 aimed at oncology and care management. The first two products to hit the market are designed to streamline the approval and pre-authorization processes. A third product will focus on matching cancer patients with the best treatments.

Watson is an artificial intelligence computer system that can run hundreds of algorithms simultaneously to process human language to deduce meanings from clues to produce a probable answer. When launched, Watson was made up of 90 servers, with the processing power equal to 2,880 computers. Since then it has improved its performance by 240% and is able to run on a single IBM Power 750 server. Since Watson appeared on “Jeopardy!” in 2011, beating the two best contestants ever to appear on the show, the supercomputer has been “learning” medical knowledge for its new role in health care.

In-network doctors will use WellPoint’s Watson-based “Interactive Care Reviewer” to facilitate electronic claims submissions and treatment requests. The “Interactive Care Guide” will be used by health plans to review claim and preauthorization requests.

Loads of data

For the Interactive Care Guide and Interactive Care Reviewer, more than 25,000 test case scenarios and 1,500 real-life cases were downloaded into Watson. The computer was then “trained” to interpret the meaning of the data and analyze queries in the context of medical data, physicians’ medical notes and patient records using natural language processing.

WellPoint spokeswoman Cindy Wakefield said both products have a limited availability but will continue to be rolled out among WellPoint-owned plans and in-network physicians during the next year. WellPoint then will market the products to other insurance companies. WellPoint will work with IBM to implement Watson on each health plan’s technology platforms. The pricing will be negotiated with each payer based on membership, expected utilization and customization requirements.

WellPoint said insurers are in the best position to offer the technology, not only because of their ability to make the large investment, but because of the amount of data a health plan can access to develop evidence-based best practices. The Interactive Care Reviewer will be offered at no cost to in-network physicians, Wakefield said.

Although Watson will be used to review claims, it will never deny a treatment request, Wakefield said. “If Watson recommends a different request than what was submitted, one of WellPoint’s nurses will review the request and make the final determination.” She said Watson is intended to help improve communication between physicians and the insurer, and the goal is faster decisions.

Individualized cancer care

Doctors will use the cloud-based “Interactive Care Insights for Oncology” product to identify individualized treatment options for cancer patients, starting with lung cancer. Wakefield said the system, like the Interactive Care products, will be marketed to payers, but physicians would be the actual users.

For the oncology program, Watson ingested more than 600,000 pieces of medical evidence and 2 million pages of text from 42 medical journals and oncology clinical trials.

“It can take years for the latest developments in oncology to reach all practice settings,” said Craig Thompson, MD, president and CEO of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, in a statement. He said the approach they are taking with Watson will “enhance cancer care by accelerating the dissemination of practice-changing research at unprecedented pace.”

The Maine Center for Cancer Medicine & Blood Disorders, a practice with offices through the state, and WESTMED Medical Group, a multispecialty group in Purchase, N.Y., are the first organizations to use the Insights for Cancer Care program. Their oncologists will test the systems and provide feedback to IBM and WellPoint before the programs are offered to others. Wakefield said she expects the product to have limited availability later this year. Pricing has not yet been set.

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IBM Watson demo (link)

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