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Health IT, Like Life, Is an Iterative Learning Process

October 23, 2012
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IBM's Watson is a perfect example of how we all can learn and grow through new experiences

At last week’s 2012 New York eHealth Collaborative Digital Health Conference, I got to sit in on a very interesting session featuring Watson, IBM’s technology that uses the ability to analyze both structured and unstructured data, natural language capabilities, hypothesis generation, and evidence-based learning to support medical professionals as they make decisions. HCI Editorial Board member Pat Skarulis, vice president and CIO, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, shared how her departmentis currently developing the product to better inform its oncology practice.

In 2011, Watson’s skills were showcased as it defeated two celebrated human competitors on the Jeopardy! game show. What I find incredibly interesting about this technology is that it is an iterative solution, and instead of using a static set of data, it refines its results the more it is used and developed. It can be taught that certain treatments are not suited to certain co-morbidities, as well as can be taught a system for grading the quality of data sources.

Watson’s learning curve for preparing and winning Jeopardy took four years, so undoubtedly, it will take longer still for Watson to make its mark in healthcare. It is now in a delicate credibility building phase to give confidence to providers that the results it generates are indeed relevant to their practice.  Eventually, IBM has plans to add cost data, so providers can easily see the price differentials of different treatments to further inform the patient.

I think of the power of iterative learning as I ponder my last days at Healthcare Informatics.  After almost two and half years at HCI, I am moving on. It is sincerely a bittersweet departure, as I have loved reporting on this fast-paced, stimulating industry and thoroughly enjoyed getting to work with HCI Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland and the HCI team. Not only will I be starting a new chapter in my professional life, I will be starting a new chapter in my personal life as well. Later this week, I am heading to Texas (where I grew up) to get married! A couple of days after I get back from my honeymoon, I begin my new job.

I have learned so much at HCI. Mostly, that culture change—which is the hardest part of change—is usually at the heart of innovation, and some of the best innovations are examining what technology is already had and figuring out how optimize and use it in new ways.

Personally, I’ve learned that being given the freedom to try new things, fail, and succeed, can ultimately lead to innovation, professional growth, and personal satisfaction. It is only when we’re given the license to try new things can we truly innovate. I am thankful for being allowed to do that here at HCI, and I can’t wait to continue learning new things where I land next .