VA Turns to IBM Watson to Improve Veteran Care

IBM's Watson computer

IBM's Watson computer IBM/AP File Photo

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The pilot program could show how cognitive computing systems can distill complex data sets into useful information.

IBM’s Watson technology – first made famous in 2011 after besting human competitors on the television game show "Jeopardy" – is now turning its computing power toward improving veterans’ health care.

The Department of Veterans Affairs announced today a two-year pilot program with the company worth $6.8 million, signaling the agency's intent to assess innovative and emerging technologies that could benefit the 8.3 million veterans requiring care each year.

IBM’s Watson technology “will ingest hundreds of thousands of Veterans Health Administration documents, medical records and research papers” and distill information and knowledge to clinicians in near real-time, according to IBM.

During the pilot, Watson will base clinical decisions on realistic simulations of patient encounters – not on actual patient encounters – providing a test-bed for how computers might handle patient care decisions.

“Physicians can save valuable time finding the right information needed to care for their patients with this sophisticated and advanced technology,” said Carolyn M. Clancy, VA’s interim undersecretary for health, 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.”

IBM will support VA care providers in one of the agency’s data centers located in Austin, Texas.

If the pilot program is successful, it could show how cognitive computing systems can distill complex data sets -- such as electronic health records, which are made up of large sets of both structured and unstructured data -- into useful information.  

The Defense Department recently accepted bids for a revamped version of its electronic health records system contract that could eclipse $11 billion in value. IBM is one of the bidders on that contract, and while the contract language doesn’t require cognitive computing capabilities, a Watson-like capability would be something IBM could integrate into its platform should it win the award.

"IBM designed Watson to help solve some of the world’s greatest challenges, and I’m humbled to be working with VA in helping them, including enhancing treatment efforts for PTSD,” said Anne Altman, general manager for IBM’s federal practice.