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Watson, IBM's Quiz Show Champ, Moves Into Health Care

Will doctors and patients like an insurers' recommendations for treatment any better if they come from a Jeopardy!-winning computer instead of a human? We're about to find out.

Health insurer WellPoint is signing up IBM's Watson, the mainframe computer outfitted with some nifty software to make human-like decisions based on split-second data analysis. IBM says it's Watson's first paying job.

In a joint statement, the companies say Watson may help doctors choose treatments that balance drug interactions and offer the best odds for effectiveness. And the computer could also "streamline communication between a patient's physician and their health plan" by helping in the insurer's review of complicated cases. And Watson might even help steer patients to the doctors near them who have "the best success in treating a particular illness," they say.

Sounds a little Big Brotherish, even if Watson turns out to be the smartest older sibling ever. As human Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings was losing to Watson in a match early this year, he welcomed "our new computer overlords" in his final answer. But many doctors, maybe even most, already bristle at advice from insurers, rendered with or without a computer's help.

So will having Watson behind the scenes change that? "I would want to make sure Watson was being directed as an objective tool," oncologist John Glaspy, at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the Wall Street Journal.

WellPoint's Chief Medical Officer Sam Nussbaum responded to the Journal that the Watson project isn't "about limiting care; it's about assuring the right care is given."

How will Watson come up with suggestions for care? In a matter of seconds, the computer will analyze a patient's medical chart and records, textbooks and the medical literature and WellPoint's own databases.

Terms of the deal between WellPoint and IBM weren't disclosed. If work on getting Watson ready for medical use proceeds as expected, then the computer could be crunching real patient data in pilot tests early next year.

For more on how Watson does what it does, see the IBM video below.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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