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VA Maryland Health Care System


Watson Promises to Revolutionize the Way Humans and Computers Interact

Eliot Siegel, MD, chief of Imaging for the VA Maryland Health Care System inserting notes in the Radiology Reading Room.

Dr. Siegel will figure out the best ways for Watson to work with medical specialists to digest medical records, and summarize notes, point out causes for concern, and warn about potential concerns.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

It won and now it's famous. Watson, the computer program, won on the TV show Jeopardy!, besting the show's two top champions and demonstrating its keen ability to comprehend human languages, absorb huge databases, and then mine them quickly for information.  This ability to understand and react to natural human language has long proved a barrier for computer designers working with artificial intelligence, but IBM, in conjunction with two universities including University of Maryland School of Medicine and Columbia University, now plan to test the Watson program by sending it to medical school and by testing its advanced analytics for potential health care applications at the University of Maryland and at the VA Maryland Health Care System.

Eliot Siegel, MD, chief of Imaging at the VA Maryland Health Care System and a professor of diagnostic radiology and nuclear medicine at the University of Maryland, will be leading the project for the University of Maryland School of Medicine, which is funding the project. "The system also has the potential to ingest information from a single patient's electronic medical record in one facility or potentially multiple facilities and also to acquire information from multiple patients. It then has the ability to form multiple hypotheses in a manner similar to the way in which it understands the Jeopardy! question and forms multiple hypotheses," says Siegel. "In short, Dr. Watson may become an exceedingly smart and indispensible assistant to doctors. A powerful tool."

"This is a wonderful example of the remarkable collaboration between the VA Maryland Health Care System and the University of Maryland School of Medicine," said Dennis H. Smith, director of the VA Maryland Health Care System. "Our physicians' and researchers' work benefits our Veterans but often the greater community as well."

Watson, named after former IBM president Tom Watson, is impressive for two reasons, experts say: Its encyclopedic database of human knowledge and its ability to navigate the nuances of human language. Once it absorbs medical and health information, Watson will be able to help doctors diagnose patients and even interact with both the patient and the doctor, using its ability navigate those nuances of natural language. "The technology has the potential to result in a renaissance in the application of ‘artificial intelligence' in medical data mining, data analysis, and decision support," Siegel says.

"I see Watson's capabilities, not as a replacement for physicians, but as an adjunct and tool to organize, highlight, and prioritize information to make a physician more efficient and effective, and improve patient safety," he adds. "In a manner similar to a physician who works with residents and fellows and medical students, our physician of the future might utilize this tool to provide improved patient care more cost effectively."

In addition to his role as chief of Imaging at the VA Maryland Health Care System, Siegel directs the Maryland Imaging Research Technologies Laboratory at the School, where Watson's applications will also be tested.


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