The Department of Veterans Affairs wants to use advanced computing to make better decisions on patient care and has tapped IBM's Watson to help sift through the data.

VA announced Monday the start of a two-year pilot program to test how quickly the computer system can cull medical records and studies for pertinent information. If the pilot is successful, the Clinical Reasoning System would be used to design treatment around hard data and make evidence-based clinical decisions.

"A tool that can help a clinician quickly collect, combine and present information will allow them to spend more time listening and interacting with the veteran," said Carolyn Clancy, VA interim under secretary for health. "This directly supports the patient-centric medicine VA is committed to delivering every day."


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The system will be applied to "realistic simulations" during the pilot period, according to the VA, and not for decisions on actual patient care.

"Watson will make it possible for [Veteran Health Administration] physicians to interact with the data in natural language, process vast amounts of Big Data to uncover patterns and insights and learn from each interaction," IBM said in a release Monday.

Over the lifetime of a patient, health records can grow as large as 100MB — the equivalent of 5,000 emails or 100 million text characters — IBM pointed out.

Watson's adaptive computing capability will be able to sift through the data and standardized discrepancies in how the information was recorded to give a holistic view of past treatment. The results can then be compared across the board to identify the best treatment paths for complex medical problems, such as how to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.

"IBM designed Watson to help solve some of the world's greatest challenges and I'm humbled to be working with VA in helping them, including enhancing treatment efforts for PTSD," said Anne Altman, general manager for U.S. Federal at IBM. "There's no more important challenge than improving healthcare for our veterans and we've seen how Watson can assist medical professionals and make it easier for them to capture insight from so many sources and make more informed decisions."

The contract award has a ceiling of $6.8 million over the next two years.