MedInformaticsMD in WSJ again: No Patient Will Ever Say, 'Quick, Watson, the Needle!'

Following along the lines of my Jan. 2011 post IBM's Watson, Jeopardy, and "Revolutionizing Medicine" , the Wall Street Journal published this Letter to the Editor by me today:

Wall Street Journal

FEBRUARY 25, 2011

No Patient Will Ever Say, 'Quick, Watson, the Needle!'

Regarding Ray Kurzweil's "When Computers Beat Humans on Jeopardy" (op-ed, Feb. 17): Librarians often receive requests for information as cryptic as "Jeopardy!" clues, from people who are sometimes not even sure what they're seeking. Watson is, in essence, a librarian that retrieves facts.

Regarding natural language processing and fact-retrieval systems like IBM's Watson, medicine is about cognition. It's about human judgment born of experience in dealing with ambiguity, not just of language but also, and this is critical, of observations, findings, lab data, image interpretation, etc. It is about human intuition, assemblage and the integration of a huge amount of disparate information in ways not well understood even by its practitioners. The end result is not just the recall of a piece of information, obscure as the information might be.

I consider predictions of Watson spearheading cybernetic miracles in medicine to imply just as grandiose a valuation to the technology as the statements I heard two decades ago about the health information technology of the day, or even today, "revolutionizing medicine." That has not happened.

A cybernetic librarian is no physician. As for me, for now I'll stick to people in my own medical care. Let Mr. Kurzweil see the machine for his ailments.

Scot Silverstein, M.D.


I am pleased that my counter-marketing-hype opinion on the meme of health IT "revolutionizing medicine" was deemed fit to print by the Journal.

Those in senior leadership positions, as are included in the WSJ's readership, need to see that meme challenged.

-- SS