IBM's Watson Offers a Glimpse Into Health IT's Future

If health IT innovation is a road, IBM's (NYSE: IBM  ) Harry Reynolds sees technology as a tool to help doctors reach their destination. He makes the comparison to GPS units that people use to navigate while driving.

"How many people have GPS?" he asked a packed auditorium at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park. Nearly everyone raised a hand.

"Now how many of you let your GPS drive your car?"

Reynolds' point was that technology helps people, but it doesn't take over for them. The future of health care technology won't have machines replacing doctors. Instead, it will collect information, organize it, and present it to doctors so they can make medical decisions. That's what IBM hopes the "Jeopardy" champion supercomputer Watson will bring to health care.

Reynolds, director of Health Industry Transformation for IBM Global Health care & Life Sciences Industry, was among the speakers Friday at the BioSciences Forum. The annual forum is hosted by North Carolina State University's Poole College of Management.

Reynolds cited personal experience to explain how technology could improve health care outcomes. Reynolds said that he watched his parents die under the care of the health care system. But he doesn't fault the doctors. He said that poor communication and inadequate sharing of information hampered the abilities of doctors to administer care.

"They died of poor care, not poor professionals," Reynolds said.

Reynolds points to a number of technology innovations that could have helped his parents, their doctors, and his siblings. Telemedicine would have helped doctors keep family members informed. Technology could have also helped manage medications. Reynolds said his father took 41 pills a day -- a tough number for anyone to manage, and drug compliance remains a major problem for many patients. Reynolds notes that Philips now has a medication dispensing device that talks to patients to remind them to take their medication. A missed dose prompts the device to call someone, a family member or other caregiver.

IBM's role in the health IT revolution will be to build the infrastructure that supports delivery of care, Reynolds said. Watson is gearing up for the job. Last month, Big Blue joined with insurer WellPoint (NYSE: WLP  ) in an announcement that amounts to Watson being fitted for his own hospital scrubs. Watson's ability to analyze human language combined with the capability to quickly process huge volumes of data can help clinicians diagnose patients and choose medicine and treatment options.

WellPoint expects to begin using Watson in early 2012. Reynolds reemphasizes that when the technology launches, it will help doctors not replace them. He returns to his earlier GPS analogy.

"As we look at what we've done with Watson, it learns, it continues to take information in," Reynolds said. "But it hands it over to the doctor. He's driving the car."

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