Ever feel like the people reviewing your claims at the insurance company are a bunch of faceless, mindless drones? Well it turns out your paranoid cynicism is coming true - congratulations! In a historic step towards modernizing healthcare, insurance giant WellPoint is teaming up with IBM so that the Watson AI can help their staff make informed decisions. The amount of medical literature is staggering - doubling in size about every five years. No human can possibly hope to keep up. Watson, however, is able to process 200 million pages of content in just three seconds. In early 2012, some WellPoint nurses will be able to access Watson to assist them in reviewing patient cases and treatment requests. Later, WellPoint expects to roll out the service to a few oncology practices and eventually this technology could be helping medical professionals all over the world. Taste a bit of this AI-fueled medical utopia in the video from IBM below. While many will undoubtedly lament the "dehumanizing" nature of AI in healthcare, Watson represents one of the great hopes in this field. With unparalleled abilities to understand human writing in huge amounts at high speeds, Watson can place the entire global history of medical literature in the hands of your doctor. Faceless and cold? Perhaps. But better and smarter as well.
As we discussed when Watson was poised to take on Jeopardy! champions earlier this year, the IBM system is a wonder when it comes to understanding natural human language. That's not an easy skill for a computer, yet Watson is able to process billions of documents to find correlations between key words and concepts. This allowed the AI to win at Jeopardy! and it also allows it to recommend the best solutions to medical problems by searching through records and finding the most likely causes for ailments. Early tests with Watson have shown it to process complex symptoms, recognize possible causes with uncanny range and accuracy, and suggest treatments that impress the doctors working with the AI. The big goal of Watson in medicine is to give every medical professional access to the system, not to replace human decision making but to improve upon it by keeping humans informed. Here's a brief video from IBM that highlights that vision:
WellPoint is one of the largest insurance groups in the US (the largest by some counts) with one in nine Americans participating. They have 34 million+ members and 70+ million when counting subsidiaries. Their agreement with IBM is historic not because it's the first time AI is being applied to medical databases (it's not, this has been done before) but because of the scale of the company and Watson's superior understanding of human language. Early next year when Watson is made available to WellPoint personnel it will be used to sort through patient charts, medical records, WellPoint's history of treatments, and IBM's library of medical textbooks and journals so that the computer can synthesize treatment recommendations using all of these sources. We're talking about millions upon millions of documents reviewed in just seconds. Nurses will take Watson's recommendations as guidance, but conflicts in claims (your doctor wants to give you Drug X but Watson recommends Drug Y) will still be settled by human reviewers.
From there, WellPoint expects to roll out the medical version of Watson to oncology practices to assist in complex treatment plans. No word yet on the time it will take for that application to come online, nor how long WellPoint and IBM will stay at that level before moving on towards more general uses of the technology.
Eventually, however, I think we'll see Watson, or its successor, commonly used in all areas of the medical industry from patient interviews to ER visits to insurance claim lawsuits. WellPoint expects the nurses in the opening trial will be able to access Watson from desktop computers or even mobile devices, and I foresee a future where tablet computers (or smart phones) serve as easy to use portals to Watson medical solutions calculated in the cloud. That means that not only will Watson-like technology be available to all levels of medical professionals but it will be available almost anywhere.
Consider that possibility for a moment. Every doctor (or nurse, or claim adjuster, etc) would have access to the world's collection of medical expertise at their fingertips. And, because Watson not only makes recommendations but also cites the sources it used to make its decisions, your medical provider could quickly perform their own research to verify or expand upon Watson's suggestions. This technology may turn every doctor into a super doctor. If we could make it freely accessible via smart phones it could also turn even untrained humans into passable medical assistants. These are world-changing possibilities.
And they come with world-sized risks. While I'm not a pessimist, there are clear avenues for abuse or failure. What if insurance companies (or governments, or whoever) got to decide that some treatments were too costly, and kept Watson from suggesting them? What if medical professionals became so trusting of Watson that an error in the AI would be accepted as medical fact and cause misdiagnoses of patients? What if Watson (or its successor) had no real competition, making an entire industry reliant upon a single system, and again allowing an error to be propagated to millions across the world?
WellPoint (and IBM) have assured the public (1,2) that they only intend Watson to be an objective assistant, and that it won't take financial cost-benefit into account. Likewise, they have openly stated that Watson is here to augment human judgement, not replace it. Yet the fact that these companies must come out and assuage our fears about these risks reinforces the fact that such possibilities do exist.
That doesn't mean we should let our fears keep us from adopting Watson on a large scale in the medical industry, but we should go into this with open eyes. AI could be one of the most powerful and transformative tools in world healthcare. It is overwhelming a positive trend, and we need to support it and grow it as much possible. But, while this technology is still young, we should be very vocal about how we, as patients and human medical professionals, want it to be developed. One way or another medical AIs are going to revolutionize the industry. If WellPoint, IBM, and the public work together we can ensure that the revolution leaves us with a much healthier world.