Skip to:


V.A. enlists IBM's Watson to help veterans suffering from PTSD

VA Hospital
FILE - This Feb. 6, 2013, file photo shows the exterior of the Veterans Affairs hospital in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

by Lance Ulanoff | Mashable

IBM's Watson beat the odds on Jeopardy! Now the big question: is it smart enough to help solve what ails the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs?

The past couple of years have been pretty rough for the V.A.. In June of this year, it got blasted for underreporting veteran complaints, which ran the gamut from slow response time to poor care. Eventually the Secretary of the V.A., Eric Shineski, resigned.

The new secretary, Robert A. McDonald, appears to be presiding over a high-tech pilot program that may address some of these concerns — and that enlisted one of the world's best-known computers.

In a joint statement on Monday, IBM and the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced they'll be using IBM's Watson to develop a clinical reasoning system to help primary care physicians treat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Watson will ingest the electronic medical records for millions of veterans to find patterns — the kind that will help the Veteran's Health Administration (part of the V.A) healthcare professionals make diagnoses and find solutions more quickly for the 8.3 million veterans currently in its care.

Like many of Watson's other projects, this will allow clinicians to ask natural-language questions. Watson will answer based on massive amounts of data that, for this project, will reside in an Austin-based data hosting facility.

"The kind of data that Watson will be ingesting will be hundreds of thousands worth of documents from VHA including medical records, research docs and medical literature that will help them assess the proper patient care," Ann Altman, IBM General Manager for U.S. Federal and Government Agencies told Mashable.

According to the V.A. between 11% and 20% of Iraq War veterans, 12% of Gulf War Veterans and 15% of Vietnam War veterans suffer from PTSD in a given year.

"It's very exciting to me, because the whole goal is to accelerate decision-making for primary care physicians," said Altman. (She couldn't comment on the V.A.'s recent troubles.)

Altman did note that the V.A.'s interested in these kinds of tools goes back to IBM Watson's first victory over a human on Jeopardy!

As a cognitive system, Watson will not only use the reams of data to help provide diagnosis and treatment ideas for PTSD, it will learn and improve. "Watson will develop a corpus of knowledge specific to PTSD," said Altman, "it will collect data [and] through that Watson will learn and grown more confident."

For now, the $16 million government contract (the first phase is for $6M) is focused solely on PTSD, but Altman acknowledges that, owing to the nature of electronic media records, the system will be gathering medical information beyond that primary disorder. But it's unclear how or when the V.A. might expand the pilot program to the treatment of other war-related ailments.

"I’m sure the V.A. has many ideas on how to apply this, but we’re very focused on PTSD," said Altman.

Mashable has contacted the V.A. for comment and will update this post with their response.

Mental Health