Watson – changing how medical students learn

by Jeremy Hodge on October 31, 2012

When I tell someone I work at IBM Research and they have no idea what it is we do, I usually follow up with “we built Watson, the computer that won Jeopardy!” If they have somewhat of an interest in science and technology they’ll usually ask a bit more about what else Watson can do, and now, I have a response.

Watson is changing they way medical students learn.

As with many fields, the amount of medical data is growing at a rate that is nearly impossible to keep up with. Based on current estimates, the amount of medical information doubles every 5 years and by 2020, doctors could face 200 times the amount of facts that a human can process to make a decision. Because of this explosion in medical data, it’s no longer possible for doctors and medical students to memorize it all, as they need to focus on critical thinking and making decisions; this is where Watson can help.

While Watson is not going to be your doctor, it is another tool that doctors and medical students can use to process information and make the right decisions. IBM is partnering with the Cleveland Clinic on a new technology called Watson Paths, which gives Watson the ability to look at multiple medical factors and discover and build out possible  medical case scenarios including diagnosis and treatment options and how it came to those conclusions. Medical students at the Cleveland Clinic will be able to use this technology as part of their learning, and will be able to judge solution paths that Watson builds out and provide their own input by suggesting and considering a variety of hypotheses and finding key evidence to support potential answers, diagnoses and possible treatment options. This type of interaction helps the students evaluate medical case scenarios and find evidence to help them carefully rationalize decisions. At the same time Watson is able to build it’s expertise in the medical domain and refine its solutions.

To me what’s exciting about this announcement is that it’s a way in which technology can enable people to process information and change the way they think. Once upon a time before people wrote things down, we would share long pieces of information, like a story, from one person to the next through a series of tone poems. These mnemonic devices allowed people to memorize lots of information, yet it inhibited them from thinking about anything else. The gradual move to the written word and print changed the way we think by freeing up our cognitive capacity to focus on processing and consuming new information rather than storing it. This type of shift in how we think has happened within print advancements (spaces between words, the printing press) and the shift from print to the web.

In a way Watson’s use in the medical training field could be the beginning of another shift as we start to deal with the huge amount of data and information in front of us. While students will still need to memorize things and rely on certain pedagogical methods that have been around for a while, they will start to use new tools and focus on other skills (like critical thinking) to advance the profession of medicine.

You can go to the IBM Research website learn more about the collaboration between IBM and the Cleveland Clinic, or check out this widget we built, which includes some videos and photos of the project.

Note: Even though I work at IBM, this post doesn’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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