Can a supercomputer with artificial intelligence take better care of you than your doctor can? Health care executives from IBM Watson and athenahealth (ATHN -2.04%) debated that question onstage at Fortune’s inaugural Brainstorm Health conference Tuesday.
In addition to partnering with Celgene (CELG 1.87%) to better track negative drug side effects, IBM (IBM -0.59%) is applying its cognitive computing AI technology to recommend cancer treatment in rural areas in the U.S., India, and China, where there is a dearth of oncologists, said Deborah DiSanzo, general manager for IBM Watson Health.
For example, IBM Watson could read a patient’s electronic medical record, analyze imagery of the cancer, and even look at gene sequencing of the tumor to figure out the optimal treatment plan for a particular person, she said.
“That is the promise of AI—not that we are going to replace people, not that we’re going to replace doctors, but that we really augment the intelligence and help,” DiSanzo said.
Athenahealth CEO Jonathan Bush, however, disagreed. “It’s OK—we’re friends here—of course you’re going to replace me!” he exclaimed, noting the limitations of traditional doctors.
“The human is wrong so freaking often, it’s a massacre,” said the co-founder of athenahealth, which sells cloud-based electronic health records software to hospitals and doctors’ offices. “Nobody ever goes after the radiologist—they’re wrong so often we don’t blame ’em.”
While less enthusiastic about artificial intelligence’s current contributions to healthcare, Bush suggested a perhaps more radical vision of the future, in which machines do indeed supplant many rudimentary medical functions. “Forget brain scans and cancer silhouettes—what about plain film and broken bones? Wouldn’t Watson be a lot more reliable with that?” he asked rhetorically. “And isn’t that billions and billions of dollars of some radiologist looking at it and saying, ‘Yup, that’s a broken bone?’”
Rather than replace the radiologist altogether, DiSanzo said Watson would make the doctor’s job easier by narrowing down a series of X-ray or CT images to the most relevant scans, and combining that with other patient records to “make your definitive diagnosis quicker, faster.”