IBM has spent billions of dollars over the past few years forming 'Watson Health,' which they see as the future of global healthcare. Through the use of their super-computer, Watson, they are already using artificial intelligence (AI) to accurately detect, diagnose, and even predict illnesses.
The first step IBM took toward realizing Watson Health, was gathering all the scientific papers, clinical trials, genome sequences, and other big healthcare data that they could find. This is a lot of data, in fact, it’s estimated that 1.8 million scientific papers are published every year. On top of that, the average hospital also gathers terabytes of data on their own patients. If you take into account how many hospitals there are around the world, it quickly becomes a daunting amount of data.
What is Watson Health?
As president and CEO of IBM, Ginni Rometty, says, 'In the healthcare system, there is three million times more data than all books ever written. So what’s a doctor going to do?' It would be impossible for anyone to ever glean any useful information from all that data, but Watson can not only 'speed-read' all this unstructured data, it can also understand it, and even learn from it.
That’s why, in 2011, IBM sent Watson to medical school, where doctors from the most prominent schools in the world spent two years teaching the AI program about different diseases. In their sessions with the AI program, doctors would actually test the AI and correct it whenever is gave a wrong answer.
After graduating, Watson was able to diagnose patients with surprising accuracy. In fact, according to that team at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, Watson was able to analyze 1,000 cancer patients and make the same diagnosis that the doctors made 99% of the time. Watson was even able to find alternative treatments that doctors missed in 30% of those cases.
While it is still in the beginning phases, Watson has already proven itself in the real-life case of a Japanese woman who was diagnosed with leukemia. She was going through a standard treatment for her cancer, but her condition was only getting worse.
The doctors were baffled by her condition, so they brought Watson into help. The supercomputer was able to sift through the same information the doctors had and compare it with 20 million different research papers on cancer. After only 10 minutes, the cognitive supercomputer was able to provide a more accurate diagnosis for the patient. 'The team found she had another type of leukemia [that needed] a different therapy. She got it and she recovered completely,' said Satoru Miyano, a professor at the Institute of Medical Science at the University of Tokyo.
Medical mistakes like this have caused a lot of otherwise preventable deaths. Some studies have even estimated that doctor errors are the third leading cause of death in the United states. IBM hopes Watson can take human error out of that equation.
Watson Health is currently investing most of its efforts into cancer research. After partnering with Quest Diagnostics, which services the majority of U.S. cancer clinics, Watson has a lot of the data it needs to start looking for potential cures.
IBM has also partnered with the biopharmaceutical company, Celgene, which has extensive data on clinical drug trials. With this data, IBM hopes Watson will find ways to cut down on unnecessary testing, both before and after drugs have hit the market.
Watson is even being used by scientists at the Undiagnosed and Rare Diseases Centre in Marburg, Germany, where it has been gathering data on diseases that doctors do not yet understand.
With all of these partnerships and acquisitions, IBM is on the forefront of gathering the big data that other players in the healthcare industry have not even begun tapping into. It is with this data that IBM plans to revolutionize the healthcare industry.
How Watson Health Plans to Diagnose the World
The more data Watson is able to gather and analyze, the more patterns it will be able to recognize; until there comes a time when the AI will be able to identify new symptoms and markers for diseases that doctors have never been able to recognize before. On a large enough scale, Watson will begin to predict diseases before they happen and provide doctors with information that will help them pinpoint which patients are most at risk for future diseases.
To achieve this, IBM has also partnered with Teva Pharmaceuticals, which has been on the forefront of biosensor technology, like smart inhalers, drug delivery microchips, and other IoT (Internet of Things) devices that gather big data from patients.
Teva has been gathering data from asthma patients with smart inhalers in order to help patients, 'cope with health challenges in a more systematic, data-driven manner, with the ability to be proactive, rather than reactive,' said Dr. Rob Koremans, CEO of Teva Global Specialty Medicine. “In doing so, we aim to cut treatment costs by providing patients, payers, healthcare providers and caregivers with relatable data that can inform action and insights into a patient’s total disease management plan.”
On top of all the data they are gathering from hospitals, scientific articles, patient records, and IoT devices, researchers have also provided Watson with census data, which they see as another part of the healthcare equation. Watson researchers are finding that the more they know about where you live, how much money you make, and your quality of life, the better they can predict a patient’s potential risk factors.
Watson has already changed the way that we think of healthcare. With its ability to take in so many different sets of data and actually learn from them, Watson Health is actually demonstrating that healthcare is much more holistic than we previously thought. As Spyros Kotoulas, research manager for IBM Health, says "we are moving from treating a set of problems to treating a person.”
And, with all of this data residing on the cloud, Watson is allowing for doctors around the world to diagnose any patient, no matter where they live. For example, many cancer patients in the US are forced to move to Boston or New York City in order to be near specialists. However, with Watson Health, a local non-specialized doctor could handle at least some aspects of the patient’s treatment or diagnosis.
This is why IBM plans to bring Watson Health to every corner of the world—because the more data Watson can gather, the more accurate it can diagnose diseases, and the more people it can save.