David Kerr on Barack Obama’s visit to Silicon Valley

David KerrHere on the edge of Silicon Valley we have just had a visit from Barack Obama. His schedule included closed door meetings with the tsars of technology; Jobs (Apple), Zuckerberg (Facebook), and Schmidt (Google). Although the meeting agenda is unknown there is a suspicion in the technosphere that the president is hoping for substantial help from the Tech giants with healthcare reform, in particular by reducing the burden and cost from dealing with chronic disease. Certainly there are a huge number of start-up companies trying to get into the potentially lucrative healthcare market and unlike the rest of the Western world, there is also plenty of cash available. Venture capitalist companies have even taken to billboard advertising on the side of the major freeway that runs through the Valley from San Francisco to San Jose.

Also in the news it appears that IBM’s Watson super computer is going to use its enormous computing power for healthcare in the not too distant future. IBM said recently that it has reached an agreement with a company developing speech recognition technology to, “explore, develop, and commercialise the Watson computing system’s advanced analytics capabilities in the healthcare industry.”

Watson, powered by 90 servers and 360 computer chips, is a machine that was created to quickly answer complex questions involving puns and wordplay. Recently it took on former champions of the long running US quiz show “Jeopardy” and trounced them. Apparently, the Watson system is going to be used to help physicians and nurses find answers to perplexing clinical problems.

For a doctor struggling with a diagnosis they could use Watson’s analytics technology along with voice and clinical language understanding to process all available texts, reference materials, prior cases, and latest research. The idea being that synthesis of every piece of information on a given topic will provide expert guidance based on so many more sources of information than has been possible previously, making the physician much more confident in the diagnosis.

Unsurprisingly the companies involved are selling the idea based on the potential for clinicians being able to work “smarter and more efficiently,” according to their press release. If it works in health then there are plans to expand the use of the Watson super computer into knowledge management and training, the financial sectors, and also into the legal arena.

For the UK, one potential application would be for the new GP consortiums to buy into the idea of having a mini Watson to create cloud based computing systems for their own use. Such a system would handle all of the interactions between all stakeholders and patients and would have the potential to model the impact of change on the particular healthcare system. As the system would be owned and run by the consortium, the information contained within it would be locked within the cloud and could not used by third parties as happens at the moment.

So it does look like the next revolution will be technological and that the machine is taking over many aspects of healthcare. It will be expensive in the short term but perhaps have the potential for long term savings. The question is whether the new masters of health will have the stomach and the freedom from political interference to buy the technology now to save in the future. Unfortunately the history of the NHS and its relation with technology has been somewhat checkered. Here in Silicon Valley the belief is that the geeks would be much better at this sort of thing than the men in suits and Barack Obama, for one, appears to be listening.

David Kerr is the managing editor of the Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology.