Paging Doc Watson

IBM's Watson supercomputer has a new job in health IT, a role likely to be considerably trickier than thrashing two previous Jeopardy! champions during a human vs computer showdown in February.

WellPoint Inc., the nation's largest health-benefits company, has hired Watson to help health-care providers diagnose and treat patients. Or, to be less anthropomorphic about it, IBM and WellPoint are commercializing the Watson technology, developing applications that can sift through vast reams of patient data and medical literature to help pinpoint the most effective treatment.

The potential impact is huge, if only because of the size and influence of WellPoint. The Indianapolis-based insurer serves more than 70 million Americans through its affiliated health plans and subsidiaries. It is the Blue Cross and/or Blue Shield licensee in 14 states including California, New York, Ohio and Virginia. WellPoint also operates UniCare, which offers group and state-sponsored insurance plans.

IBM announced in February that it was teaming with university researchers and voice-recognition company Nuance Communications Inc. in a five-year quest to develop Watson-enabled doctor-assistant applications. At the time, IBM projected that some apps could be available in as little as 18 months, reported

Now, IBM and WellPoint say in a joint news release that Watson technology could be in play in the form of small clinical pilot programs as soon as early next year.

WellPoint is developing its own applications to run on base health-care technology being developed by IBM. WellPoint hasn't determined yet whether the apps will "speak," as Watson did on Jeopardy!, or communicate in a more traditional format, Rod Smith, vice president of emerging technology at IBM, told eWEEK.