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Is Watson the Game Changer Healthcare Needs?

IBM’s supercomputer, Watson, broke into mainstream media in 2011 when it soundly beat two humans on Jeopardy! With that win under its belt, Watson went to medical school and studied medical data, learning to diagnose patients by scanning exam books and electronic health records. Since then, Watson has spent time with medical experts and completed its residency in 2013. As the supercomputer is now available for a variety of services, some healthcare executives predict Watson will be the next game changer in value-based care.


dataThe healthcare industry has long aimed to reduce operational costs, increase patient engagement and provide better quality of care through the use of technology. The enactment of MACRA and value-based reimbursements has further increased clinicians’ need for efficient handling of medical data to improve patient outcomes. While clinicians embrace technology in theory, many experience time waste as a result of their efforts. Their frustration is justified considering that 80 percent of the world’s data is not readable by traditional computing systems due to structural inconsistencies. Medical records are packed with details that could accurately predict patient outcomes if only it were possible for a clinician to thoroughly sift through an entire 4 to 10 terabytes of medical data and derive meaning from it all in the time it takes to complete an office visit.

In a 2013 study, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center determined that one in five diagnoses are incorrect or incomplete, not due to insufficient data, but because there is more data than is humanly possible to analyze, and the amount of medical information available doubles every five years.

“Medicine has become too complex (and only) about 20 percent of the knowledge clinicians use today is evidence-based.”–Steven Shapiro, Chief Medical and Scientific Officer, UPMC 

To get ahead of the data problem, some of healthcare’s top performers are early adopters of Watson’s technology. However, many still ask, “Will cognitive computing pay off?”


SeatedUsing data mining, pattern recognition and natural language processing, Watson learns similarly to humans. Like the human brain, it can make sense of data that lacks formal structure, but unlike humans, Watson can navigate the complexity of big data in lightning speed. In the case of a Japanese patient whose doctors were stumped for months, Watson mined 20 million cancer research papers and properly diagnosed her rare form of leukemia within 10 minutes.

Aside from being quick and accurate, Watson is proving to be accessible and flexible. Its uses continue to grow through APIs (application program interfaces) that allow organizations of any size to create custom applications based on their specific needs.


  • global tabletWelltok’s CaféWell is a web-based community using Watson’s technology to provide healthcare resources, social networking and gaming to guide consumers’ interest in preventative health measures.
  • Medtronic uses Watson in an app to predict hypoglycemic episodes in diabetic patients approximately three hours before onset, so the patient has time to self-administer corrective action.
  • Pharmaceutical companies Sanofi and Johnson & Johnson, are using Watson to make breakthrough discoveries in drug research and development.
  • CVS Health uses Watson to analyze patient data and uses predictive analytics to improve managed care for patients with chronic diseases.
  • Seton Family Health discovered the causes for its hospital readmissions were not what administrators had previously thought. Analyzing the unstructured data (i.e. social indicators) from medical records, Seton discovered readmissions were highly predictable, allowing staff to make interventional plans of treatment.


As Watson continues to evolve, other companies are emerging to create competition in the cognitive computing market. Competition has a way of driving costs down and innovation up. Watson has already proven to be capable of saving money while transforming the ability of providers to give an unparalleled quality of care. So, yes, we do believe Watson is already a game changer, and the question we now ask is, “Can the healthcare industry afford not to invest in cognitive computing?”

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