Watson: Making Sense of Health Care Information

Lora Bentley

In February, IBM's Watson made history and became the darling of the game show world when it beat the two most successful "Jeopardy!" contestants of all time in a three-episode challenge.


Despite a few hiccups, like Watson duplicating the answer of a human player after Alex Trebek told that player his answer was wrong, IBM had done what it set out to do. The company had proof that computers could actually understand and do something useful with natural language.


But obviously, the Watson team didn't build the supercomputer just to prove a point. Watson's real value comes in how the technology underpinning it can be used in other business analytics applications.


In a recent IT Business Edge interview, Craig Rhinehart, director of products and strategy for IBM's enterprise content management division, noted that the health care industry holds a lot of promise for Watson-both right now and in the future.


The future scenario finds Watson helping doctors and other health care professionals diagnose or decide on treatment for patients. Rhinehart explained Watson

will provide a "candidate list" of possible answers, and then it will give each answer a confidence rating. Then, of course, it's up to the physician to make the final decision about what the right answer is. There's nothing like that in health care or anything else-the ability to have confidence (that's the key word) in a set of answers you get back from a computer.

That all of the technology isn't quite there yet doesn't mean parts of it aren't already being put to use. Particularly the content analytics portion. Rhinehart calls it business intelligence for content:

Health care is one of those industries where there is so much natural language communication-clinical research, doctors' notes, treatment outcomes ... And really, until this natural language capability came along, you couldn't do anything with them. All of the information kept piling up, but the real insight into it was trapped. What our customers are doing is using the technology as a way to go through all that information and begin to unlock business insight.

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