Watson, Your New Health Insurer

Watson, the IBM supercomputer that crushed the human competition on “Jeopardy!” has been hired by one of the country’s largest health insurers.

WellPoint Inc., which operates Blue Cross Blue Shield plans in 14 states, will use Watson’s vast health care database and quick calculating power to guide treatment decisions for its 34.2 million members.

“With medical information doubling every five years and health care costs increasing, Watson has tremendous potential for applications that improve the efficiency of care and reduce wait times for diagnosis and treatment by enabling clinicians with access to the best clinical data the moment they need it,” Manoj Saxena, general manager of an IBM division behind Watson’s marketing, said in a statement. “WellPoint’s commitment to innovation and their work to improve how care is delivered and benefits administered make them an ideal partner for IBM’s software and services to pioneer new efficiencies in health care.”

In its new job, Watson will swiftly compare patients’ electronic records to a mammoth library of textbooks and medical journals, and WellPoint’s history of treatments to generate a list of options and the rationale behind them.

“Imagine having the ability to take in all the information around a patient’s medical care — symptoms, findings, patient interviews and diagnostic studies. Then, imagine using Watson analytic capabilities to consider all of the prior cases, the state-of-the-art clinical knowledge in the medical literature and clinical best practices to help a physician advance a diagnosis and guide a course of treatment,” WellPoint’s chief medical officer Dr. Sam Nussbaum said in a statement. “We believe this will be an invaluable resource for our partnering physicians and will dramatically enhance the quality and effectiveness of medical care they deliver to our members.”

Dr. Glenn Braunstein, vice president for clinical innovation at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles said Watson could be valuable assistant to doctors.

“First of all, doctors cannot remember everything,” Braunstein said, “and so to have a tool like Watson which can very rapidly integrate the world’s information, medical information together and provide diagnostic suggestions and therapeutic suggestions would be a very powerful tool for doctors.”

In 2010, WellPoint was accused of overcharging customers and even dropping coverage to avoid paying claims.

“… I would hate to see an insurance company use Watson to deny a claim because they say that the test that was ordered or the therapy that was given was inappropriate,” said Braunstein. “In other words, I would not like to see Watson supplant a doctor patient relationship — it should be an adjunct to that.”

WellPoint insists that Watson will help improve patient care.

“We believe new solutions built on the IBM Watson technology will be valuable  for our provider partners, and more importantly, give us new tools to help ensure our members are receiving the best possible care,” Lori Beer, WellPoint’s executive vice president of Enterprise Business Services, said in a statement.

Watson will clock in officially early next year. His salary is unknown.