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Doctor Watson Is In

IBM’s Watson supercomputer is still best known for its appearance on Jeopardy! last year, but it and systems like it are already beginning to transform industries from medicine to finance.

A new piece in the New York Times shows how computer systems that analyze a patient’s symptoms, medical records, and case history databases are already beginning to change how doctors diagnose patients. Hospitals aren’t about to trade in robot doctors for real ones, but they have shown that computers—in this case a system named Isabel—can be used to catch diagnoses that a well-trained human would miss:

Mr. Maude said that while someone like Dr. Dhaliwal would probably have thought of necrotizing fasciitis, his daughter’s doctors were so stuck in what is called anchoring bias — in this case, Isabel’s simple chickenpox — they couldn’t see beyond it.

Had they entered her symptoms — high fevervomiting, skin rash — into a diagnostic program, Mr. Maude said, the problem would probably have been identified.

Thousands of diseases are known, and many are rare. “Low-frequency events are hard to put on the brain’s palette, and that’s part of Isabel’s strength,” Mr. Maude said. “It’s impossible for any one person to remember how each of those diseases presents, because each presents with a different pattern.”

It’s hard to know exactly where the computer-aided health care industry is headed. Both hardware and software are improving at such a rapid rate that the impossible today transforms into the feasible next year and the essential the year after that.

Like it or not, change we must. As a society we will never solve our health care problems (and therefore our federal budget problems) until we get a grip on health care costs, and that can’t happen without a transformation of the system through greater use of new silicon friends like Drs. Watson and Isabel.

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