The IBM Whiz Kid's Work on Cancer

Watson's foray into oncology is only the first baby step toward applying "big data" to thorny medical problems.

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Can IBM's supercomputer become the ultimate medical assistant?

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Big data is also being used to tackle behavior change. On behalf of clients such as big insurance plans and employers, Eliza Corp. uses automated phone, email and text messages to connect with people and encourage them to take their prescribed drugs, get screened for cancer, or engage in some other health-promoting behavior. By drawing on its more than 900 million previous interactions, Eliza can tell what works, and what doesn't, says Alexandra Drane, founder and chief visionary officer. Reminding women about breast cancer screening by saying that their mammogram machine "missed" them, for example, is far more effective at bringing them in than a lecture on early detection.

Now that people are eagerly sharingtheir health experiences online, might that information be advantageously mined, too? Patients have such unparalleled access to medical information and to each other that their collective experience can be as valuable as, or even more valuable than, that of a single practitioner, argues Herbert Chase, professor of clinical medicine in biomedical informatics at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons and a member of Watson's advisory board.

Chase offers a personal example: He started taking Lipitor and experienced insomnia, but found no mention of that side effect in the literature. Patients on blogs were all over it. If a supercomputer could somehow seek out and collect that information, experts say, it would offer yet another perspective.

Dave deBronkart, for one, would welcome it. He blogs about participatory medicine as e-Patient Dave, and when he faced a late-stage kidney cancer diagnosis in 2007, read that median survival was 24 weeks. For patients like him, the lag between finishing a study and seeing it published can be deadly, he says, so what's needed is to unleash Watson and its ilk to harvest this early, more tentative knowledge. He envisions a tool that reveals a potentially life-saving tidbit shared by a researcher "last Tuesday in Budapest, on slide 27 of his presentation."

Elementary? Maybe not. But surely possible.



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