It almost seems ridiculous that it needs saying, but it is indeed often said that mobile health tools and applications should not intend to replace the physician or other care providers. The prospect of apps diagnosing patients today is certainly a hype-filled one. It isn't happening yet, anyway.
And yet a new super computer from IBM has proven itself more than capable of besting and replacing today's top Jeopardy! players. In a television spectacle reminiscent of the super computer Deep Blue's win over chess world champion Gary Kasparov in 1997, a room-sized computer developed by IBM managed to beat out a pair of Jeopardy! all-stars over the course of a three night game this week. The computer, named Watson, ended the run with $77,147 compared to Ken Jennings’ $24,000 and Brad Rutter’s $21,600.
I only tuned in for the second night's game, but that match included a medical related question -- no, a diagnosis question really: “You just need a nap. You don’t have this sleep disorder that can make sufferers nod off while standing up.” Watson beat out the humans with the answer: “What is narcolepsy?” Maybe you don't need an M.D. for that one, but still the computer got there first.
When one of Watson's human opponents realized he could not beat the computer in final Jeopardy!, he referenced The Simpsons by writing "I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords" as his wager.
Following Watson's win on Jeopardy, IBM let it slip to the New York Times that the first application it intends Watson to tackle is medicine:
"For IBM, the future will happen very quickly, company executives" told the Times. "[Today] it plans to announce that it will collaborate with Columbia University and the University of Maryland to create a physician’s assistant service that will allow doctors to query a cybernetic assistant. The company also plans to work with Nuance Communications Inc. to add voice recognition to the physician’s assistant, possibly making the service available in as little as 18 months."
Nuance, of course, offers the very popular Dragon voice recognition software for healthcare providers and others. Imagining a voice-enabled "physician assistant service" that taps into Watson and available as a smartphone app is not at all difficult. A desktop version of the service would be substantially less useful.
“I have been in medical education for 40 years and we’re still a very memory-based curriculum,” Dr. Herbert Chase, a professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University who is working with IBM on the physician’s assistant . “The power of Watson-like tools will cause us to reconsider what it is we want students to do.”
It will cause us to reconsider the capabilities of smartphone medical apps, too.