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WellPoint to use famed IBM supercomputer

Watson, which defeated 'Jeopardy!' champions, will diagnose medical illnesses and, within seconds, recommend treatment options for patients. The insurer says the computer will help doctors, not replace them.

September 13, 2011|By Duke Helfand, Los Angeles Times
  • The IBM supercomputer known as Watson competes against two contestants on the game show "Jeopardy!"
The IBM supercomputer known as Watson competes against two contestants… (Carol Kaelson / Associated…)

Instant diagnosis?

That's the idea behind a new partnership between insurance giant WellPoint Inc. and IBM Corp.

WellPoint, the nation's largest health insurer by membership, is tapping IBM's Watson supercomputer to diagnose medical illnesses and, within seconds, recommend treatment options for patients. The new system will debut at several cancer centers early next year.

Executives at the two companies say that Watson, best known for defeating "Jeopardy!" quiz champs on the popular television show earlier this year, can sift through millions of pages of data and offer diagnoses to doctors virtually on the spot.

WellPoint said the computer system will not supplant doctors but instead provide them with instant information to make better decisions to improve the quality of care and save money.

"Physicians really need tools to get better quality answers," said Lori Beer, a WellPoint executive vice president in charge of the initiative. "We see this as a tool to help them be more successful in driving better outcomes for our members. We're not trying to replace the physician."

WellPoint, with 34.2 million members in 14 states, said Watson will not be used to make decisions about reimbursing patients or doctors for the cost of treatments. But the system will eventually tell doctors what medical therapies and drugs are covered by patients' policies.

The insurer will monitor doctors' use of the computer system but will not penalize those who disregard its recommendations, a spokeswoman said. Information collected by the computer will be reserved initially for doctors but made available to patients at a later date.

WellPoint and doctors who are involved in the project will each supply patient information for the computer system. The data will be supplemented by medical journals, textbooks and other sources.

Watson will be able to analyze 1 million books, or roughly 200 million pages of information, and provide responses in less than three seconds, according to leaders of the project.

That's important, they say, given the challenge faced by doctors to keep up with an explosion of medical information.

"Watson has tremendous potential for applications that improve the efficiency of care and reduce wait times for diagnosis and treatment by enabling clinicians with access to the best clinical data the moment they need it," Manoj Saxena, an IBM software executive, said in a statement.

duke.helfand@latimes.com

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