IBM Donates Use Of Watson To Veterans Health System

IBM’s Watson Computer Helping with Veterans Health
You have probably heard of Watson, the computer brain-child of tech giant IBM. This sophisticated machine was built especially for analyzing questions asked by humans using normal, spoken language – a difficult task given the subtitles and nuances of human verbal communication.

But Watson has proven itself up to the job, winning at one of the most challenging human question answering tests by beating the top human experts at the television game Jeopardy in 2011 and winning a $1 million dollar prize for doing it.

Considering the abilities of this machine, the name Watson may conjure images of Sherlock Holmes’ astute sidekick, Dr. Watson, but in fact, the computer was named for the original IBM CEO Thomas J. Watson. Watson was originally designed and built by IBM for playing Jeopardy with the idea of expanding artificial intelligence technology, rather than for exploring its commercial purposes.

But after demonstrating its ability by beating top players Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on Jeopardy , the possible uses for this computer genius for solving medical problems became obvious.

It seems logical that an intelligence like Watson would move on to working at an agency like the Veterans Health Administration. There, it will sort and analyze the mass of patient and research information, creating methods for rapidly assessing patient health, designing treatment plans, and communicating these results to human beings using natural language.

Complex Problems in Veteran Health System

Detecting patterns in information is a large part of the science of medicine useful in epidemiology, diagnosis, and discovery of treatments and cures. The Veterans Health System serves the medical needs of over 8.3 million veterans each year, amassing an astronomical amount of patient data and research information.

Serving millions of people all over the country and abroad, this agency is in control of huge and complex mass of information about patients and their health. When data-mined intelligently, some of this vast network of information can provide clues helpful in diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of many diseases.

watson used by veterans

The VA has spent over $52 million dollars in recent years supporting cancer research, but the volume and rate of delivery of useful data is overwhelming and more than human researchers and clinicians can sift through in a reasonable timeframe. So the biggest problem at first at the VA is in sorting and classifying health information and presenting it in a way human beings can understand and act on.

Watson as a Medical Sleuth

watson being used for medical research

Watson first embarked on its career in helping solve medical problems when brought in to work on new solutions for lung cancer treatment decisions at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. More recently, Watson has been brought in on the Operation Moonshot cancer cure program advanced by Vice President Biden.

Given that the Veterans Administration treats 3.5 percent of all Americans with cancer, Watson is at first been put to use examining veteran DNA samples looking for matches between patient DNA and the cancer type and finding the best current treatment for that person by sifting through mountains of research reports from around the world.
Veterans have a disproportionately high incidence and mortality rate from cancers.

Most cancers are caused by alterations in DNA called mutations. Treating cancer involves pairing the treatment to the specific genetic sequence involved for the individual patient. Because this involves so much information, only a computer like Watson can deliver the precision results needed for timely and personalized treatment, especially for those in advanced stages of cancer.

IBM Donates Use of Watson to Veterans Health System

IBM is donating the use of Watson in a two-year pilot study working with the Department of Veterans Affairs to assess how artificial intelligence can benefit veteran’s health. Watson is doing this job by being fed reams of VA documents, patient medical records, and scientific research papers on health and medicine. Watson then analyses this information and presents real-time reports to doctors, nurses, and scientists using natural language.

During this test phase, Watson will not be making real clinical decisions for actual patients. Instead, it will run realistic simulations of patient/doctor interactions and produce data on how computers can be used in the future for directly managing decisions about patient care. Success for the Watson program at the VA will be measured by how well it distills and summarizes the complicated data sets of health records, genetic samples, and the results of research studies, turning it into information useful to doctors and nurses.
IBM helping veterans

The work being done now by Watson is not completely new to the Veterans Administration. Previously, companies like NantHealth and Foundation Medicine have done patient DNA analysis for the agency. Watson will add a new layer of analytic capacity and render the data in language easy for humans to understand and act on. IBM is also selling this technology to hospitals and making it available to researchers at Universities and other research facilities.

Ultimately, IBM’s Watson is expected to be able to provide targeted information on treatment options at a rate thirty times faster than in the past. Before being put to work for the VA, Watson spent over two years getting up to speed on knowledge about cancer and medicine by working with twenty different cancer centers in a training and validation phase of the computer’s development.

In its final form of helping patients at the VA, IBM developers say it will be routine for doctors and pathologists to feed in DNA and other health information for a patient and quickly receive a detailed report identifying genetic mutations responsible for the cancer and an array of the best treatment options available. In other words, in the near future computers like Watson may make the treatment of cancer and other diseases… elementary.


Herper, Matthew. “IBM Donates Use of Watson to VA”, June 29, 2016. Web Jan. 30, 2017

Konkel, Frank. “VA Turns to IBM Watson to Improve Veteran Care”. Dec. 15, 2014. Web: Jan. 30, 2017

Best, Jo. “IBM Watson: The Inside Story”, Tech Republic Nov. 2016, Web: Jan. 30, 2017