IBM’s Watson beat the odds on Jeopardy! Now the big question: is it smart enough to help solve what ails the US Department of Veterans Affairs? The past couple of years have been pretty rough for the VA. In June of this year, it got blasted for underreporting veteran complaints, which ran the gamut from slow response time to poor care. Eventually the Secretary of the VA, Eric Shineski, resigned. The new secretary, Robert A. McDonald, appears to be presiding over a high-tech pilot program that may address some of these concerns — and that enlisted one of the world’s best-known computers.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is planning to use IBM’s Watson — the Jeopardy! winning supercomputing system designed to simulate human cognition — to advise doctors on treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder patients, IBM announced on Monday. As part of a two-year, multi-million dollar contract, IBM plans to install Watson software at the Department’s data center in Austin, Tex. The total contract is valued at $16 million, according to IBM, though the initial set-up and assessment phase is worth about $6 million. Watson is designed to crunch large volumes of medical literature, clinical data and personal electronic medical records to suggest the treatment options it deems most appropriate for individual patients. Physicians can type questions in natural language, and Watson spits out a series of options, ranked by its confidence in each method’s success. “Physicians can save valuable time finding the right information needed to care for their patients” with Watson technology, interim undersecretary for health Carolyn Clancy said in a statement. “A tool that can help a clinician quickly collect, combine and present information will allow them to spend more time listening and interacting with the Veteran.”