IBM, Nuance partnership to focus on 'Doctor Watson'

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IBM and Nuance Communications have launched a research agreement to explore, develop and commercialize the Watson computing system's advanced analytics capabilities in the healthcare industry.

The research and technology initiative will combine IBM’s Deep Question Answering (QA), Natural Language Processing and Machine Learning capabilities with Nuance's speech recognition and Clinical Language Understanding (CLU) technologies for the diagnosis and treatment of patients that provide hospitals, physicians and payors access to critical information. The two companies expect the first commercial offerings from the collaboration to be available in 18 to 24 months.

“Robots can really help radiologists [and other physicians],” explained Josko J. Silobric, MD, associate partner with IBM Healthlink Solutions. The intent of the project, explained Silobric, is to leverage Watson’s abilities to analyze relationships between different data points and sift through the volumes of data to suggest diagnostic or therapeutic decisions. “The power of Watson is the ability to understand the data elements. The robot may be able to suggest the data point to a set of diagnoses with varying degrees of confidence.”

Watson could be a core solution to the overwhelming data problem in medicine, suggested Nick van Terheyden, MD, CMIO of Nuance. Indeed, Watson’s involvement in decision-making could expedite the process, boost accuracy and increase diagnostic confidence.

Columbia University Medical Center in New York City and the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore are contributing their medical expertise and research to the collaborative effort. For example, physicians at Columbia University are helping identify critical issues in the practice of medicine where the Watson technology may be able to contribute, and physicians at the University of Maryland are working to identify the best way that a technology like Watson could interact with medical practitioners to provide the maximum assistance.

Watson's ability to analyze the meaning and context of human language and quickly process information to find precise answers can help clinicians unlock important knowledge and facts buried within huge volumes of information and offer answers they may not have considered to help validate their own ideas or hypotheses.

For example, a doctor considering a patient's diagnosis could use Watson's analytics technology, in conjunction with Nuance’s voice and clinical language understanding solutions, to rapidly consider all the related texts, reference materials, prior cases and latest knowledge in journals and medical literature to gain evidence from many more potential sources than previously possible. This could help medical professionals confidently determine the most likely diagnosis and treatment options.

“Watson has the potential to help doctors reduce the time needed to evaluate and determine the correct diagnosis for a patient,” said Herbert Chase, MD, professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City. “We also believe that Watson also has the ability to help doctors provide personalized treatment options that are tailored to an individual patient's needs.”

“We believe that this has the potential to usher in a new era of computer assisted personalized medicine into healthcare to improve diagnostic accuracy, efficiency and patient safety,” confirmed Eliot Siegel, MD, director of the Maryland Imaging Research Technologies Laboratory at University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Under the agreement, IBM and Nuance will jointly invest in a multi-year research initiative targeted to the applications of the Watson technology to assist in the diagnosis and treatment of patients in combination with Nuance’s voice and clinical language technologis. In addition, IBM has licensed access to the Watson technology to Nuance. IBM and Nuance are currently engaged in a five-year joint-research initiative designed to advance next-generation natural language speech technologies, the results of which will be commercialized by Nuance. IBM also named Nuance its Preferred Business Partner for speech technologies and related professional services, aimed at complementing IBM’s Industry Solutions portfolio.