By Daniel R. Matlis

In the TV series Star Trek: Voyager, the ship’s Doctor was a computer program called the Emergency Medical Hologram (EMH).  The EMH program was built into the starship’s sickbays as a stop-gap measure for use if the ship’s doctor should be temporarily unable to perform his duties. But in the first episode, Voyager’s medical personnel are killed, and the EMH is called into action as Chief Medical Officer for the duration of the series.

Whenever someone walked into sickbay, the program was engaged and The Doctor would greet the patient with the phrase: “Please state the nature of the medical emergency.”

That’s all Science Fiction….it will never happen you say?

Enter IBM Watson. Named after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, IBM Watson is a breakthrough in the field of open-domain Question Answering (QA).

The QA technology that underlies Watson is called DeepQA, and was developed by IBM Research in collaboration with leading universities. DeepQA represents a quantum leap in Web search technology.

Watson goes well beyond simply answering questions. It actually learns by being exposed to large data repositories, much like people have to think through our learning and experiences to answer questions. To do this, Watson parses through unstructured content, such as natural language text, speech, images, and video to analyze vast amounts of content.

The complex algorithms for the analytics engine behind Watson are tuned specifically for open-domain QA. These algorithms help Watson handle the broad range of information that language can express and evaluate the evidence it collects to produce its confidence level to answer the question at hand.

IBM will showcase Watson’s capabilities in the TV quiz show Jeopardy!.  Billed as “The First-Ever Man Vs. Machine Jeopardy! Competition,” Watson will compete against two of the most well-known and successful Jeopardy! champions - Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

The Watson episodes are scheduled to air over three consecutive days, February 14 -16, 2011.

How Can Watson Help Doctors?

“In ‘Jeopardy’, built into the game is this notion confidence; that it’s not worth answering unless you’re sure. And in the real world, there are lots of problems like that. You don’t want your doctor to guess. You want him to have confidence in his answer before he decides to give you a treatment,” commented Dr. Katharine Frase, VP, Industry Solutions and Emerging Business at IBM Research. 

Healthcare delivery has become increasingly reliant on a sophisticated mix of medical devices, diagnostic and therapeutic equipment, and the multimodal data they provide. The delivery of high quality healthcare is dependent on a wide variety of diagnostic, surgical, therapeutic systems, the environment of care, as well as supporting IT infrastructures. This abundance of data has created challenges for healthcare providers.

“For at least thirty years, it’s been humanly impossible for a physician to master all the material they need to practice at the highest level,” said Dr. Herbert Chase, Professor of Clinical Medicine at Columbia University. “Medical literature has doubled in size every seven years” he added.

“You are never going to replace a trained doctor or nurse,” said Dr. Joseph Jasinski, Healthcare and Life Sciences at IBM Research. “But certainly a system like Watson could be a Physician’s Assistant. Suppose you are a clinician, a doctor, a nurse trying to diagnose a very complex case. You have some ideas, but in order to confirm your hypothesis, confirm what you think is wrong; you need a lot of information.” he added

In addition to assisting with Medical diagnosis, Watson could help lower the occurrence of Medical errors and Hospital acquired infections, a key issue facing the healthcare system. “Twenty percent of medical errors are diagnostic errors. And it’s not that they’ve missed diagnoses, often that they are delayed.” said Dr. Chase. “Watson has the capacity to get the diagnoses up there sooner”

A system like Watson could be tied into a hospital’s facilities and biomedical systems and Healthcare management infrastructure to ensure that assets were cleaned, sanitized or sterilized before they are available for use with a new patient. It could also ensure that clinical equipment which has been recalled or is under a service alert, is removed from service before it is used on a patient. These scenarios would help to proactively reduce the opportunity for medical errors and preventable infections acquired in Hospital.

“It is the effective and efficient storage, retrieval, analyses, and use of biomedical information to improve health. At the end of the day, the goal is to improve health,” said Dr. Chase.

In the not too distant future, when you visit a healthcare provider, don’t be surprised if you are faced with an avatar like Watson’s in a white coat asking you “Please state the nature of the medical emergency.”