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IBM’s Watson supercomputer to diagnose patients

Watson, IBM’s game-show playing supercomputer, will soon try its hand at assisting physicians in the WellPoint health care plan in diagnosing and treating patients.

IBM and WellPoint , Blue Cross, Blue Shield’s largest health plan, today announced plans to jointly create applications that can be used by the health care organisation’s teams of physicians and other medical personnel.

WellPoint and IBM have agreed to develop Watson-based applications that can improve patient care through the use of evidence-based medicine, which uses proven best practices to standardise patient treatments. A simple example of evidence-based medicine would be to automatically place someone who has suffered a heart attack on an aspirin regimen upon leaving the hospital.

The Watson supercomputer is made up of 90 IBM Power 750 Express servers powered by 8-core processors — four in each machine for a total of 32 processors per machine, according to reports. The servers are virtualised using a Kernel-based Virtual Machine (KVM) implementation, creating a server cluster with a total processing capacity of 80 teraflops. A teraflop is one trillion operations per second.

Working with speech and imaging recognition software provider Nuance Communications, IBM said the supercomputer can assist health care professionals in culling through gigabytes or terabytes of patient healthcare information to determine how to best treat specific illnesses.

For example, Watson’s analytics technology, used with Nuance’s voice and clinical language understanding software, could help a phisician consider all related texts, reference materials, prior cases, and latest knowledge in journals and medical literature when treating an illness, analysts said. The analysis could quickly help physicians determine the best options for diagnosis and treatment.

“There are breathtaking advances in medical science and clinical knowledge [but] this clinical information is not always used in the care of patients,” said Dr. Sam Nussbaum, WellPoint’s Chief Medical Officer, in a statement.

“Imagine having the ability to take in all the information around a patient’s medical care — symptoms, findings, patient interviews and diagnostic studies. Then, imagine using Watson analytic capabilities to consider all of the prior cases, the state-of-the-art clinical knowledge in the medical literature and clinical best practices to help a physician advance a diagnosis and guide a course of treatment. We believe this will be an invaluable resource for our partnering physicians and will dramatically enhance the quality and effectiveness of medical care they deliver to our members,” Nussbaum added.

Watson, named after IBM founder Thomas Watson, can rifle through 200 million pages of data and provide precise responses in just seconds, IBM said.

WellPoint said it expects to begin employing Watson technology in early 2012 in clinical pilots with selected physician groups.

“The implications for health care are extraordinary,” said Lori Beer, WellPoint’s executive vice president of Enterprise Business Services. “We believe new solutions built on the IBM Watson technology will be valuable for our provider partners, and more importantly, give us new tools to help ensure our members are receiving the best possible care.”

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