Even devoted Jeopardy fans still can't wrap their brains around the idea that IBM's Watson is, like, you know, a brain. "It's called cognitive computing, and the brain is the best analogy," Merkel says. "As you combine it with what is happening in the healthcare ecosystem— the evolution of care-delivery models, an explosion of information-based data science, this migration to consumerism—we're able to offer game-changing analytical insights." It starts with Watson's knowledge. The volume of medical literature doubles between every two and five years, depending on which study one believes. So with 700,000 new scientific studies published each year, there is no way a sole individual can keep up. Ah, but Watson can.
One current area of focus is consumer engagement. "When Watson receives a request from a physician, it can read through an entire patient case, understand the rationale and compare it to medical policies and compliance and go ahead and approve the request without any human intervention if its confidence is 'very high,' " Merkel explains.
Another focus area for Merkel's group is R&D-related productivity, which encompasses its work with the Baylor College of Medicine and the study of a protein related to cell proliferation within tumors. "In Medline alone, there are 70,000 articles on this P53 protein and 6,000 to 8,000 new ones enter the system each year," Merkel reports. Previously, sifting through all that data led Baylor to one target for this protein per year. With Watson, he says, they came up with seven within months.
Merkel has also trained his sights on improving clinical outcomes, including the Watson for Oncology Solutions program with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. "Here we are training Watson, ingesting lots of literature and working with the best doctors," Merkel says, with a trace of awe in his voice. "Now people around the world can have access to this broad talent that before, quite honestly, was limited to the Upper East Side of New York City." —Sarah Mahoney