Watson Commandeered in Fight Against PTSD

By Tiffany Trader

January 5, 2015

The Veterans Health Administration wants to improve efficiency and patient care and it’s counting on IBM Watson analytics technology to help it achieve these goals. Last month, the department began a pilot project to determine if Watson is up to the challenge as part of a $7 million contract with IBM. Over the next two years, the VA will assess Watson’s ability to transform medical records and research data into actionable insight for the benefit of the nation’s 21.6 million veterans.

The project will be based at the newly-established Clinical Reasoning System at the Department’s datacenter in Austin, Texas. Watson will ingest hundreds of thousands of VHA documents, as well as medical records and research papers with the aim of helping physicians improve patient care in the clinical environment. A central objective of this pilot project is delivering effective care for post traumatic stress disorder, which according to the VA’s National Center for PTSD, affects 20 percent of veterans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF).

The Watson-based technology, which rose to prominence when the AI machine handily defeated its opponents on the Jeopardy game show in 2011, uses data to drive medical decision making. Watson will be tasked with ingesting hundreds of thousands of VHA documents, as well as electronic medical records and research papers, scanning for relevant work, with the aim of helping physicians improve patient care in the clinical environment. For the duration of the pilot stage, Watson will be assessed using realistic simulations of pre-visit, visit, and post-visit situations, and practitioners will evaluate based on technical, functional and usability metrics. If the trial is successful, one day soon VA doctors could be using Watson to guide clinical decisions for real patients.

“Physicians can save valuable time finding the right information needed to care for their patients with this sophisticated and advanced technology,” said Interim Under Secretary for Health Carolyn M. Clancy, M.D. “A tool that can help a clinician quickly collect, combine, and present information will allow them to spend more time listening and interacting with the Veteran. This directly supports the patient-centric medicine VA is committed to delivering every day.”

Since Watson debuted in 2011, IBM has been looking for a way to commercialize the technology. The company launched the IBM Watson Group in January 2014 with a billion dollar commitment. The business unit is dedicated to “cloud-delivered cognitive advisors,” and signifies a shift toward software and services.

Healthcare is natural fit for Watson, which uses natural language processing to uncover patterns and trends in enormous reams of text data. The VA pilot will employ IBM’s Watson Discovery Advisor, the cloud-based service that was engineered to work with all kinds of data, including health care and life sciences.

IBM in involved in a similar collaboration with the Cleveland Clinic, where oncology professionals are using the analytics technology to identify new cancer treatment options. The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, are also using Watson technology to advance cancer treatments. And then there is Welltok, one of IBM’s first app partners for Watson, which is using the tech to upgrade its health optimization platform, CafeWell Concierge.

“IBM designed Watson to help solve some of the world’s greatest challenges, and I’m humbled to be working with the VA in helping them, including enhancing treatment efforts for PTSD,” said Anne Altman, General Manager for U.S. Federal at IBM. “There’s no more important challenge than improving healthcare for our veterans and we’ve seen how Watson can assist medical professionals and make it easier for them to capture insight from so many sources and make more informed decisions. The VA is poised to join other key healthcare industry leaders who are already pioneering the use of cognitive computing in healthcare.”

As the United States’ largest integrated healthcare system, the Veterans Health Administration is comprised of 53,000 independent licensed healthcare practitioners who provide care to more than 8.3 million Veterans each year.

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