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Dr. Martin Kohn, Chief Medical Scientist, IBM

Dr. Martin Kohn, Chief Medical Scientist, IBM

By Dr. Martin Kohn

With our country aging and the medical profession feeling the pressure to keep up, encouraging innovation in the United States to help ease this transition is critical. If we can seize the opportunity, the Big Data revolution can make medical practice, hospital care and every other aspect of healthcare more effective and efficient. 

Today, September 17, I’ll be on Capitol Hill to participate in a discussion hosted by the Health IT Now! coalition about the need for continued innovation in healthcare. We’ll discuss the role of health IT in helping physicians address the challenges that stand in the way of using Big Data to its full potential.

Physicians want to use data that helps them make more informed, personalized treatment decisions, while they deal with the growing volume of patients most of them face. The increasing use of Electronic Health Records (EHR) helps physicians catalogue and access critical patient data. But today’s patients want their doctors to be able to access and share personalized, evidence-based medicine from all of the available data, along with a host of the other resources, like constantly-updated medical journals, the latest clinical trial results and up-to-date treatment guidelines. Armed with this vast amount of critical information, more physicians would be able to collectively make the most informed decisions possible.

The problem isn’t a lack of available information, but too much of it. As the amount of medical information doubles every five years, a recent survey found that 81 percent of physicians say they can spare – on average – less than five hours a week keeping up. For primary care physicians seeing on average 30-35 patients per day, keeping up with a pool of medical information that doubles every five years is simply unrealistic.

The challenge of an overabundance of information is compounded by the fact that an estimated 80 percent of the 2.5 quintillion bytes of new and valuable data created daily is produced in “unstructured” text formats that are difficult for even the most sophisticated of traditional data mining systems to tap. The ability to process information from these sources like journal articles, handwritten physician’s notes and radiological scans is necessary in our quest for individualized care and improved outcomes.

With an eye toward solving challenging problems like these, IBM has invested heavily in advanced natural language (the usual language of communication) processing and analytics to utilize information in a way that supports decision-making. This represents a significant shift in the ability of organizations to quickly analyze, understand and respond to vast amounts of data. 

The most public face of this investment is the IBM’s Watson system that won on the game show Jeopardy!™ more than two years ago. Since that time, Watson has evolved from a game-playing machine to a game-changing healthcare innovation that can help physicians make better informed decisions for their patients. Watson is a cognitive computing assistant that learns, adapts and understands data quickly while increasing its ability and value over time.

Combining the power of cloud computing, analytics, natural language and Big Data, Watson sifts through millions of records of medical information in seconds to provide individualized, evidence-based medicine to physicians make better informed treatment decisions.

With the ability for the medical community to draw on this type of information, we have an opportunity to help facilitate breakthroughs in adoption of evidence-based medicine and help ever-busier physicians keep pace with the latest research and developments.

In this new era, EHR content, Big Data analytics and cognitive computing will play a tremendous role in helping lower costs, enhance quality and individualize evidence-based medicine. A system like Watson can have an important impact on the way medicine is taught and practiced here in the United States and around the world. It’s a field in which we need to remain a leader for both economic competitiveness and the good of our citizens.

As governments and private sector organizations face an aging U.S. population, combined with a changing healthcare system focused on evidence-based medicine, technology will have an increasing role to play. It’s critical that we continue to encourage the development of innovations to address these challenges.

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