IBM demonstrates how Watson supercomputer can aid healthcare

IBM demonstrated how doctors can use its Watson supercomputer to diagnose and treat patients at the National Press Club on Tuesday.

Dr. Herbert Chase, a professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University, entered a hypothetical patient's symptoms, and Watson was able to correctly diagnose the patient with Lyme disease.

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Watson even suggested a drug to treat the condition. Dr. Chase then told the computer the patient was pregnant and allergic to penicillin. This new information led Watson to change its suggestion to a more appropriate drug.

In addition to giving its top result, Watson showed other possibilities along with its confidence in each choice. By clicking on the choices, Chase was able to access the medical literature and other sources that Watson relied on to inform its decisions.

"Getting information at the right time and place can literally be a matter of life and death," Chase said.

Watson is able to analyze medical data and comb through a vast catalog of information much more quickly than any human doctor. IBM researchers said the computer could help doctors correctly diagnose patients with rare diseases they might not have thought to test on their own.

Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), one of the few doctors in Congress, also spoke at the event. He said Watson has "tremendous potential" to improve health care.

IBM and health insurance company WellPoint announced a partnership on Monday to use Watson's technology. WellPoint plans to start using Watson in early 2012 and its first applications will be in diagnosing and recommending treatments for cancer.

IBM says Watson could also eventually be used for technical support, business management and public policy.

Watson first made headlines earlier this year when it defeated two "Jeopardy!" champions on national television.