The next time you go to the doctor, you may be dealing with a supercomputer rather than a human. Watson, the groundbreaking artificial intelligence machine from IBM that took on chess champions and Jeopardy! contestants alike, is about to get its first real-world application in the healthcare sector. In partnership with health benefits company WellPoint, Watson will soon be diagnosing medical cases – and not just the everyday cases, either. The vision is for Watson to be working hand-in-surgical-glove with oncologists to diagnose and treat cancer in patients.

The WellPoint clinical trial, which could roll out as early as 2012, is exciting proof that supercomputing intelligence, when properly harnessed, can lead to revolutionary breakthroughs in complex fields like medicine. At a time when talk about reforming the healthcare system is primarily about the creation of digital health records, the integration of Watson into the healthcare industry could really shake things up. By some accounts, Watson is able to process as many as 200 million pages of medical information in seconds – giving it a number-crunching head start on doctors for diagnosing cases. In one test case cited by WellPoint, Watson was able to diagnose a rare form of an illness within seconds – a case that had left doctors baffled.

While having super-knowledgeable medical experts on call is exciting, it also raises several thorny issues. At what point – if ever - would you ask for a “second opinion” on your medical condition from a human doctor? Will “Watson” ever be included in the names of physicians included in your HMO listings? And, perhaps most importantly, can supercomputers ever provide the type of bedside manner that we are accustomed to in our human doctors?

This last question has attracted much attention from medical practitioners and health industry thought leaders alike. Abraham Verghese, a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine as well as bestselling author, has been particularly outspoken about the inability of computers to provide the type of medical handholding that we are used to from human doctors. Verghese claims that the steady digitization of records and clinical data is reducing every patient to an "iPatient" – simply a set of digital 1’s and 0’s that can be calculated, crunched, and computed. Forget whether androids dream of digital sheep – can they take a digital Hippocratic Oath?

Given that the cost of healthcare is simply too high, as a society we will need to accept some compromises. Once the healthcare industry is fully digitized, supercomputers like Watson could result in a more cost-effective way to sift through the ever-growing amount of medical information and provide real-time medical analysis that could save lives. If Watson also results in a significant improvement in patient treatment as well, it’s clear that the world of medicine will never be the same again. Right now, IBM envisions Watson supplementing – not actually replacing - doctors. But the time is coming when nurses across the nation will be saying, “Watson -- Come Here –- I Need You,” instead of turning to doctors whenever they need a sophisticated medical evaluation of a patient.

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