IBM’s Watson computer has been making headlines these past few years. It was put to the test on the game show Jeopardy and routed 2 of the most successful contestants in the show’s history. If the past is any indication of performance, Watson’s involvement in the field of oncology could prove beneficial to both patients and practitioners. Originally the size of a large room, IBM managed over time to successfully reduce the size of Watson to that of a pizza box. Improvements weren’t only made to its size, but also its processing speed, which has increased by an astonishing 240%.

In 2013, IBM made Watson available for rent to any hospital or clinic for matters relating to the field of oncology, due in part to a business agreement with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and the private health care company WellPoint. IBM, Sloan-Kettering, and WellPoint have gone to great lengths to teach Watson about the complex health care systems in the US, hoping that perhaps one day a reduction in treatment costs and budgetary waste will be possible. In addition to being versed in the health care system, a vast number of medical reference materials, such as peer-reviewed journals and patient records, were made available for Watson to process.

Watson can be kept abreast of new medical information in a small amount of time. It has been estimated that it would take a doctor approximately 160 hours of reading a week to keep pace with new medical information being published, and even more time to determine the practicality and relevance of the information to the field for which it’s intended. However, Watson can do this in a fraction of the time, and future iterations will continue to improve the speed. WellPoint stated that, during testing, Watson had an unprecedented 90% accuracy rate for diagnosing lung cancer, whereas doctors were typically about 50% accurate. Watson could become the most valuable tool for assisting oncologists with diagnosing multiple cancer types.

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Watson’s use is expanding in other areas. The New York Genome Center and IBM are also working together to further the progress of genomic medicine. Their combined efforts may provide more detailed insight into treatment options for patients. Machines provided by Illumina Inc. will be performing the tumor and genome sequencing of patients, providing comparisons between the two and highlighting differences. The most time-consuming and difficult task, as mentioned previously, would be the research aspect; this will be assigned to Watson for processing. By analyzing and sequencing the DNA of a patient, Watson would be able to make suggestions for treatment options that in theory would provide the best results specific to that patient. With more data being made available, and more exposure to information, IBM’s processing juggernaut may one day be an invaluable tool for doctors. The goal for Watson is to help doctors improve medical care so that less time can be spent trying to diagnose a problem and more made available for treatment.


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