In just the last few hours, I’ve seen a huge wave of pushback and doubt about Watson, the IBM supercomputer, being used for clinical decision support.
Yesterday, I covered a “healthcare leadership exchange” at IBM’s new Healthcare Innovation Lab in downtown Chicago. I posted some of my observations on the EMR and HIPAA blog, and made the case for diagnostic decision support.
I also wrote a story for InformationWeek, but that hasn’t run. Instead of posting my story, InformationWeek healthcare editor Paul Cerrato wrote a column about Watson already being “beaten in the medical diagnostics race” by Isabel Healthcare, a diagnostic decision support tool that’s been available for years. I have to admit, he’s right. I first interviewed Isabel founder Jason Maude probably in 2002 or so, and I first blogged about the company in 2005. I mentioned Isabel in a 2007 post that, interestingly, also alluded to the work of Don Berwick and Larry Weed.
Cerrato mentioned Jerome Groopman’s 2007 book, “How Doctors Think,” which discussed, in part, how IT could help doctors avoid many types of cognitive errors. “[D]octors tend to lean toward diagnoses that are most available to them in their day-to-day routine,” Cerrato wrote (emphasis in original). That’s exactly what Weed has said for decades, and exactly what Atul Gawande talked about in his groundbreaking book, “Complications.” Computers should not make decisions for physicians, but rather should help them reach the right conclusions, particularly when they see rare cases.
Wouldn’t you know, “e-Patient” Dave deBronkart commented on my EMR and HIPAA post to say he just finished reading Groopman’s book. He tweeted a link to my post, which a few of his 6,500 other Twitter followers noticed. They also noticed EMR and HIPAA grand poobah John Lynn’s comment that the example in yesterday’s Watson demo, a 29-year-old pregnant woman being prescribed doxycyline was “pretty weak.” (He’s right, by the way.) Aurelia Cotta, who blogs about issues such as infertility and adoption, started this thread that also got South Carolina nurse Sunny Perkins Stokes interested:
Well, there’s a reason why I call myself a “healthcare” reporter and not a “medical” reporter. I don’t know the science, and I do occasionally get myself in trouble when I start talking about things like whether doxycycline is contraindicated during pregnancy. (To my credit, I did attribute the statement to IBM’s chief medical scientist, Dr. Marty Kohn.)
As I was reading the above tweets and contemplating this blog post, I came across a link to some tongue-in-cheek pushback against Watson in healthcare. An anonymous radiologist who blogs about PACS as “Dr. Dalai” compared Watson to HAL, the diabolical mainframe in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Dr. Dalai wrote: “Watch out, boys and girls, Watson is headed to a hospital near you, and he (it?) may challenge you as much as he did Ken Jennings.” Jennings, of course, is the Jeopardy! champion whom Watson beat earlier this year.
At first glance, I thought Dr. Dalai was yet another whiny physician clinging to the status quo. But he hit on the real issue: application of knowledge. Quoting from an interview with one of Watson’s programmers, Dr. Dalai noted that the supercomputer is being loaded with all kinds of medical reference material in preparation for “learning” human physiology and ultimately gathering experience in medicine. “This isn’t fair! If I could just take a text book, stick it up my, ummmm, brain, and have it instantly memorized, I would be whiz, too!” he wrote.
Yeah, isn’t that the whole point of clinical decision support?