IBM Watson wants to fix doctor shortage

In 2011, IBM’s Watson supercomputer got an unusually public proof-of-concept, competing on Jeopardy! and beating its human competitors hands-down. It was a powerful public win for IBM, and for artificial intelligence at large, but the computer at the center of all that publicity was still basically a prototype. If Watson can do this, IBM wanted to say, imagine what it can do in the real world.
Now, Watson is getting its chance. For the past year, the Watson team has been building up the supercomputer’s medical skills, scanning through exam books to learn the basic principles of diagnosis and learning to parse the often-confusing mess of data in electronic health records. Watson has already served on the business side of Sloan-Kettering hospital, where there are fewer malpractice concerns, but a new three-year program will usher the supercomputer into the examination rooms of the Cleveland Clinic.
The goal is to create a digital assistant that can point doctors to crucial data and likely diagnoses based on a patient’s medical history. If IBM can get the system working, it could be a lifeline to overworked doctors and overcrowded hospitals — but first, the company will have to navigate an unusually tangled web of data, and an industry that’s proven particularly resistant to digitization.
At a glance, American hospitals seem ripe for a tool like Watson. The country is facing a major shortage of primary care physicians, the all-purpose doctors working on the front lines of medicine, and the shortage will only get worse in the coming decade. The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates the US will be short as many as 45,000 primary care doctors by 2020.
The result will be longer wait times, more crowded hospitals and fewer doctors to handle the same number of patients. At the same time, more digitized hospitals have meant more comprehensive medical records, offering more reports to sift through for each patient even as there’s less and less time to work through each one.