The team at UKGM, the hospital where Watson will be based

From drones that deliver essential medical supplies, to surgical robots so skilled they can remove cataracts from human eyes, machines in medicine are becoming the norm. As this year draws to a close, IBM’s Watson welcomes us into the ‘cognitive era of health’. Billed by its creators as a ‘new partnership between humanity and technology’, Watson is bringing artificial intelligence to the front line of healthcare.

Healthcare data doubles every two years from a growing number of patients around the world. More than three-quarters of this data is unreadable and useless to hospitals or surgeries.  In addition, medical innovation happens so fast that doctors would hypothetically have to read for 29 hours a day just to keep on top of the latest trends.

This is where Watson comes in.

Watson Health is a ‘question answering’ computer system made by technology giant, IBM.  When asked a question, Watson instantly searches through a colossal information bank in the hunt for an answer. Rather than searching particular keywords, Watson can process and understand the question. It then applies automated reasoning and machine learning techniques to find the right answer.

With all this processing power behind it, unreadable data is no longer a match for Watson. In fact, it is so speedy, the system can read 200 million pages of text in just 3 seconds.

When it comes to healthcare, Watson’s ability to understand language and learn on the job make it ideal in the clinical environment. For years, medical professionals have used Watson to help make decisions on complex treatments. Physicians first describe a patient’s symptoms and other important factors to the computer. Watson then picks out the key information and heads into the mine of patient data, pulling out more facts on the patient’s medical history. The system suggests and tests various theories on what the disease could be, and provides a list of treatment recommendations. Although developed as a ‘diagnosis and treatment advisor’, Watson has largely remained an assistant, helping treat already-diagnosed patients. Up until now, that is.

In October, IBM announced that Watson Health will soon take to the wards, working alongside doctors to help crack complex medical cases. The machine is to be based at the Undiagnosed and Rare Diseases Centre at the University Hospital in Marberg, Germany. For the first time ever, Watson will play a part in diagnosing disease.

IBM are also helping roll out an entire cognitive hospital, caring for sick children in the UK. The Alder Hey and Hartree Centre employ Watson technology to enhance patient care from the moment they are diagnosed until they return home safely, post treatment. Through a smart phone app, Watson and a friendly avatar named Florence help reduce hospital anxiety in young patients, remind parents about upcoming appointments, and provide feedback directly to medical staff.

Over the past few months, patients and their parents have been asked a range of questions on everything from car parking and clinical procedures to favourite films and what they like to eat. This will then ‘teach’ Watson to predict and respond to concerns, making a hospital stay less daunting to patients and parents alike.

It is hoped that once fully up and operational, Watson will even be able think, sense and feel what is happening within hospitals. In time, the system could match patients to clinical studies; track hospital admissions and bed assignments; and even help manage treatment of chronic illnesses.

Technology is undeniably transforming healthcare, and more data is being collected than ever before. Cognitive computing, like Watson, helps break down this unusable information, achieving more than was ever considered possible.