The Department of Veterans Affairs is planning to use IBM’s Watson — the Jeopardy! winning supercomputing system designed to simulate human cognition — to advise doctors on treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder patients, IBM announced on Monday.
As part of a two-year, multi-million dollar contract, IBM plans to install Watson software at the Department’s data center in Austin, Tex. The total contract is valued at $16 million, according to IBM, though the initial set-up and assessment phase is worth about $6 million.
Watson is designed to crunch large volumes of medical literature, clinical data and personal electronic medical records to suggest the treatment options it deems most appropriate for individual patients. Physicians can type questions in natural language, and Watson spits out a series of options, ranked by its confidence in each method’s success.
“Physicians can save valuable time finding the right information needed to care for their patients” with Watson technology, interim undersecretary for health Carolyn Clancy said 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 has similar partnerships with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Tex., which both use a version of Watson to advise oncologists.
The Veterans Health Administration has about 150 medical centers, about 1,400 community-based outpatient clinics, living centers and other facilities, covering about 8.3 million veterans each year, according to the VA.
Formed in January of last year, IBM’s Watson Group has been aggressively marketing the cognitive computing system to various industries — as a financial advisor, personal shopper, and culinary assistant, among others. The unit is funded by a $1 billion investment from the company.
The VA pilot is a sign that federal customers are willing to try out new technology, and could eventually lead to more government customers, said general manager of IBM’ federal and government industries Anne Altman.
“As we do this for just this one set, imagine all the other domains within the medical field, within the government, within fraud detection, law enforcement, the possibilities are endless [for Watson],” she said.
Whether Watson can fight IBM’s plummeting profits remains to be seen. In an October interview with the Washington Post, senior vice president of the Watson Group, Mike Rhodin declined to share Watson’s financial specifics, though he noted that each year it becomes a bigger contributor to IBM’s goal of generating $20 billion from analytics services by the end of 2015.