Indian Doctors Using IBM’s Watson to Aid Cancer Care

Profile photo of Yacub Elmi
29 December 2015

Technology is astounding and for an old computer geek like me, it’s darn well fascinating how it’s affecting our world. The power to improve people’s health and well-being around the world has allowed technology to flourish in third world countries and it has made a worthwhile impact on the life expectancy of those countries too. None so than India, the second largest country by population in the world. India has been affected by years of health concerns with Cancer being the largest killer. Scarce doctors per population means it difficult to get doctors more so than any other nation on the planet. However, that is soon about to change.

Recently, IBM (International Business Machines Corporation) and a large hospital system in India have partnered to diagnose and treat cancer in a country of 1.2 billion residents who often cannot access oncologists, leaving their diseases undetected and untreated. How? With something called Watson.

For those not familiar with Watson, let me fill you in. Watson is a question-answering computer system capable of answering questions posed in natural language, developed in IBM’s DeepQA project by a research team led by principal investigator David Ferrucci. Watson was named after IBM’s first CEO and industrialist Thomas J. Watson. The computer system was specifically developed to answer questions on the quiz show Jeopardy! In 2011, Watson competed on Jeopardy against former winners Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings. Watson received the first place prize of $1 million.

Watson had access to 200 million pages of structured and unstructured content consuming four terabytes of disk storage including the full text of Wikipedia but was not connected to the Internet during the game. For each clue, Watson’s three most probable responses were displayed on the television screen. Watson consistently outperformed its human opponents on the game’s signaling device, but had trouble responding to a few categories, notably those having short clues containing only a few words.

The reflections of pedestrians are seen in a window of the International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) Watson headquarters in New York. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg Source: Forbes
The reflections of pedestrians are seen in a window of the International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) Watson headquarters in New York. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg Source: Forbes

In February 2013, IBM announced that Watson software system’s first commercial application would be for utilisation management decisions in lung cancer treatment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in conjunction with health insurance company WellPoint. IBM Watson’s former business chief Manoj Saxena says that 90% of nurses in the field who use Watson now follow its guidance.

Earlier this month IBM announced IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence system will be used by Manipal Hospitals’ 16 health facilities and affiliated academic centres, where more than 200,00 patients are treated for cancer each year. IBM Watson will help Manipal doctors quickly come up with personalized treatment options from a database that includes the latest medical information from “15 million pages of medical content, including more than 200 medical textbooks and 300 medical journals,” IBM said in announcing the deal in Bangalore. Rob Merkel, vice president of IBM Watson Health said in a phone interview from India:

You have physicians already pressed for time — nowhere more so than in India — and they don’t have the capacity to read all of these innovations in medicine,”

What takes a team of cancer doctors and oncology experts hours or even days today under normally busy conditions can instead be accomplished in a few minutes from a handheld device like an iPad, Merkel said. Physicians in India will be able to “apply this sea of knowledge” that exists for specific patients’ needs in a timely basis, Merkel added.

At the Forbes Healthcare Summit on Thursday in New York, Deborah DiSanzo, general manager of IBM Watson Health is expected to elaborate on the India deal.

IBM’s “Watson for Oncology” was developed with oncology experts from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. By deploying their system in India, those involved hope it will speed diagnosis and treatment and enable physicians to reduce waits and reach more in the medically-underserved country.

There are 1 million new cancer cases diagnosed annually in India where the ratio of oncologists to cancer patients is 1 to 1,600. By comparison, there is one oncologist for every 100 cancer patients in the U.S., IBM Watson said.

“We are desperately short on doctors,” Dr. Ajay Bakshi, chief executive officer of Manipal Hospitals said in an interview. “This will ensure my patients are getting the best possible care.”

What this exciting surge of the use of Watson means for healthcare around the world especially here in UK,  only time will tell. However, the prospect of using artificial intelligence in our general hospitals and GP might mean better healthcare for patients.

Let me know what you think on Twitter using the hashtag #SCRATCHGEEK.

Profile photo of Yacub Elmi

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