Technology is about to revolutionize healthcare. How far will automation go? Will doctors still be necessary? This is what Jonathan Cohn analyzes in a feature at the March issue of The Atlantic.

Medical records are at the core of the health system. Over the last two decades -Cohn writes- there has been a long-lasting effort to store patients’ health data electronically. Although currently there are more than 400 vendors offering these records, the process continues to be frustratingly slow. So slow that, often, doctors still have to print, fax, and scan medical records when transferring them to another institution. To establish a common language so that all already existing electronic medical records can “speak” to one another remains a pending task.

If something as simple as to put electronically health information it is being so time-consuming, thinking of an intelligent robot diagnosing a disease may seem and idea exclusive of science-fiction movies. But the article states how a supercomputer called Watson could help to make it a reality sooner than later.


IBM’s Watson computer became famous in 2011, when it beat two previous human champions on Jeopardy American TV quiz show. But IBM didn’t build Watson to win game shows. The company is developing the machine to help professionals with complex decision-making and reduce errors, for example, to point out clinical nuances that health professionals might miss on their own and get more accurate diagnosis and treatments for illnesses. This is not small thing. As The Atlantic’s piece exposes, “nearly 80% of all information in medicine consists of unstructured physician notes dictated into medical records, long-winded sentences published in academic journals, and raw numbers stored online by public-health departments”.

IBM’s Watson can digest up to 60 million pages of text per second and make suggestions much more quickly than any human. The machine is now learning to make diagnoses and treatment recommendations reading case histories at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Watson became a better at Jeopardy over time, the longer it played. Once completed its current task, Watson could continue learning to figure out medical problems sitting in on patient examinations and silently listening.

Marty Kohn, an emergency-room physician and IBM’s team leader training Watson, said last January at a meeting at the University of Utah that Watson could be “a game-changer” in fields such as oncology and primary care, where errors can be common. Kohn explained that about one-third of these errors appear to be products of misdiagnosis, one cause of which is humans’ tendency to rely too heavily on a single piece of information. “This happens all the time in doctors’ offices, clinics, and emergency rooms. A physician hears about two or three symptoms, seizes on a diagnosis consistent with those, and subconsciously discounts evidence that points to something else,” Cohn writes in The Atlantic.

If, one day, diagnostic aids such as Watson may “become as ubiquitous in doctors’ offices as the stethoscope,” only time will tell. Meantime, if you want to learn how IBM engineers and Memorial Sloan Kettering physicians are training Watson to personalize cancer care don’t miss this article and this video.

Lessons Learned:

  • New technology has the potential to have a big impact on the health care industry solving some of its greatest problems.
  • The quest to improve patient care, maximize medical efficiency and cut costs in health care industry has gained a powerful new ally: Watson, IBM’s revolutionary data-mining supercomputer.
  • Watson is being trained to improve cancer treatment. Physicians will take advantage of its information digestion capability and technology to automate claims processes to reduce misdiagnosis and select the most appropriate treatments for each patient.