Even though Watson has won Jeopardy twice, the computer’s answers should be treated with caution by healthcare professionals.

Watson, the computer system created by IBM, is being used in healthcare organizations as a second pair of eyes, so to speak. Information is put into the machine and it can sort through incredible amounts of data to help decipher diagnoses and treatments. Although Watson may be more intelligent than most humans when it comes to processing those data, healthcare professionals should remember the limitations of such an advanced technological system.

In a recent article published in the AMA Journal of Ethics, author David D. Luxton, PhD, MS, an affiliate associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, cautioned clinicians about the legality around using Watson.

“It’s essential that physicians…consider the ethical (and legal) ramifications regarding their use,” wrote Dr Luxton of Watson and other clinical decision support systems. “[R]ecommendations provided by the system might not be supported by sufficient research to instill confidence. …[H]ealthcare professionals who use Watson…should do so with an awareness of potential harm that overreliance on the system could cause the individual case, but also with apprehension for how the system can also improve their decision making.”

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If using the computer system, physicians should be ready to back up their decisions, whether or not they choose to follow its recommendations. Watson has the unique ability to see data and patterns in a way that a human might overlook. It is a game changer, as long as it is treated as a second opinion.

“The emergence of innovative technologies raises familiar and sometimes new legal and ethical ramifications for the healthcare profession,” Dr Luxton concluded. “Healthcare organizations must educate and train their staff on the capabilities and limitations of technological tools while ensuring that patients are adequately informed of how these tools are used to make decisions about their care.”

Reference

Luxton DD. Should Watson be consulted for a second opinion? AMA J Ethics. 2019;21(2):E131-E137.