Category: Health Problems & Prevention

Will Jeopardy’s IBM Watson Make Your Next Medical Diagnosis?

By now most people know that IBM Watson is the computer that Jeopardy contestants went up against on the popular television show. The idea was to feed enough information into the computer’s data bank so that Watson could answer any of the trivia questions asked. Now, the creators behind IBM Watson are taking this concept a step further and intend to use the computer in the medical field.

In preparation for Jeopardy, Watson’s data banks were filled with books, encyclopedias, dictionaries and movie scripts. So is it too far-fetched to think that if this computer could be filled with enough information to answer trivia questions on Jeopardy, that you couldn’t fill it with enough medical data so that it could diagnose an actual medical condition? IBM has now filled Watson’s data banks with medical books and journals. Recently they provided a sneak peek into Watson’s transition from trivia genius to medical guru.

Unlike, Jeopardy, where Watson only came back with a single answer, it will now provide a list of possible diagnoses based on the symptoms input into the computer and ranked in order of probability. Watson will also provide a confidence rating for each diagnosis. The computer is designed to provide a diagnosis which only has a small likelihood of being right. This is very important because while nine out of ten times most people will have a common medical ailment, this is not always the case. Sometimes you medical problem is more rare and may fall in that 4% range. Watson is designed to list all possible diagnoses no matter what its probability.

Watson will not be the first computer designed to diagnose medical conditions. Both Artemis and Isabel are automated programs that have already been around for a few years and are designed to accomplish this same task. In fact, last fall the Orlando Health hospital network in Florida began using Isabel. Additionally, a demonstration of Isabel showed it was very similar to IBM’s Watson. So, why do we need a computer from IBM that will do the same thing?

Well, Watson does provide medical personnel with some real world advantages over the automated systems currently in place. First, Watson’s data banks are huge and can hold a tremendous amount of information. Second, IBM’s computer is faster at returning a possible diagnosis. The most important advantage, however, is that Watson does a better job at interpreting non medical terms. A patient that comes into the doctor’s office might say they are having difficulty swallowing. Watson can take that information and match it with its actual medical term which is dysphagia. Its speed, vast repository of information, and ability to understand plain language catapults Watson to the top of its field.

The ability to recognize plain language provides IBM with the possibility of loading internet blogs into the computer’s data banks. People all over the world post descriptions of their medical symptoms and side effects in an effort to get answers from other people who are experiencing similar complaints. If Watson could be a repository for this information, the benefits could be invaluable to doctors.

Watson is meant to assist doctors with diagnosing and treating patients, not replace them. Medical advances are occurring at warp speed and even the most diligent doctor cannot keep up with all the changes. Watson could provide them with the largest medical reference book ever imagined. Just keeping up with the latest drugs, studies and journals is an enormous feat. If doctors could work with Watson to help them stay on top of the most current medical information, we would all benefit.

Should Circumcision Be Illegal?

Many have called California the land of the fruits and the nuts. I don’t think it gets any nuttier than trying to pass a law that will make circumcision illegal. Or maybe I am the one that is nuts because the city of San Francisco intends to put a measure on their November 2011 ballot which states it would be illegal to “circumcise, excise, cut or mutilate the whole or any part of the foreskin, testicles, or penis of another person” under the age of 18. Is it just me or does that sound crazy to you?

What sounds even crazier is that this measure does not provide any religious exemptions. If your child attends public school you must provide proof of immunization which can be waived if you claim a religious exemption. So let me get this straight. I can refuse to immunize my child against measles and spread a potentially serious disease because of religious practices, but I won’t be able to decide if my own child can be circumcised for religious reasons if the ban is passed.

Both the Jewish and Muslim faiths consider circumcision an important ritual. It is customary for 8 day old Jewish males to be circumcised by a mohel during a religious ceremony. If San Francisco passes the ban, anyone who performs circumcision would be charged with a misdemeanor crime which carries penalties of up to $1,000 or a maximum sentence of one year in jail. This includes doctors who perform the procedure.

Apparently thousands of people are on board with thinking that the decision of whether to circumcise a child should be decided by the government instead of the parents who brought him into this world. More than 12,000 signatures were collected in support of the ban, making it a legitimate ballot measure. Supporters of the ban liken circumcision to genital mutilation in girls. However, critics say the ban is an infringement of their rights. The Jewish community intends to fight the ballot measure, stating the ban violates their First Amendment rights to religious freedom.

Even medical authorities do not agree on whether circumcision provides health benefits. The World Health Organization recommends circumcision stating it helps reduce the risk of HIV. Additionally, in 2005, The American Academy of Pediatrics stated their official position is that the procedure reduces the risk of bladder infections and helps prevent sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS. However, they went on to say that their data was insufficient to support a recommendation for routine circumcision in newborns.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of baby boys in the United States they were circumcised has dropped from 56% in 2006 to about 32% in 2009. This number may be low, however, because it does not take into account circumcisions performed outside of a hospital in a religious ceremony.

Most medical experts do not make a recommendation. Instead, they outline the possible benefits and potential risks, leaving the final decision up to the parents. I think that is the way it should be. And, frankly, I am surprised that San Francisco which is usually considered very forward thinking when it comes to the rights of its citizens, is proposing such a ban.


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