​Jefferson Health patients to soon ask IBM Watson clinical questions

The cognitive patient concierge will initially assist patients with non-clinical questions in a bid to make the hospital experience more personalised.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor on

Jefferson Health looks to boost the presence of IBM's Watson in hospital rooms.

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Patients at Thomas Jefferson University's Jefferson Health may soon find themselves conversing with artificial intelligence (AI) around their particular treatment or diagnoses, with IBM's Watson expected to take up further duties within the hospital.

Speaking at SAP Sapphire Now earlier this month, the university's chief digital officer and senior vice president for technology, innovation, and consumer experience Neil Gomes said it is his organisation's intention to have Watson enhance the hospital room experience for its patients, while also returning some value to the organisation.

"We thought having this cognitive patient concierge in the room to answer questions -- non-clinical questions at this point, but soon also clinical questions -- was great value to patients as well as nurses and other clinicians that want to spend the time really addressing clinical issues in the hospital for all the patients that they serve," Gomes explained.

"Patients love the concept ... now we're putting it in about 40 of our hospital rooms."

The Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based university had partnered with Watson originally in October last year, launching cognitive hospital rooms powered by IBM Watson Internet of Things (IoT) to bring "deeper levels" of personalised care to its patients.

As part of the deal, Jefferson deployed speakers in some hospital rooms, providing patients in those rooms with access to basic information, as well as more control over their surroundings to help make their stay more comfortable.

"We like machine learning a lot because that's the most natural way to communicate that we know -- Star Trek presented it years ago to us -- so we think that's the way of the future to integrate even with IoT and do it via voice," Gomes explained.

AI is becoming a necessity in all different sectors, with Gomes noting that some of the earliest advancements made in technology have happened on university campuses and medical research labs.

Gomes believes his organisation's AI-based direction is the result of being consumer-focused in the way that it develops its digital innovations.

Delving into the partnership with Big Blue, Gomes said that IBM took a risk when it agreed to partner with Jefferson, noting the tech giant had not performed the service for any other health system previously.

"It takes a little bit of time and a little bit of a longer relationship with a company," he said. "The clinical space is very highly regulated, a lot of risk, we have to be responsible to our patients ... but it should not freeze us out."

When it comes to data collection and storage, Gomes said his organisation has a huge responsibility.

"We're not just handling our data, we're handling someone else's data, and it's not just trivial data, like a Facebook status or something like that ... but healthcare is your personal data and as we're getting into genomics and using that kind of data, it gets even more personal, so for us, safety always comes first both in procedures that we do with our patients as well as in the way that we manage their data," he added.

"Technology can help us tremendously in our space from orchestration, to early detection, through simulation ... we've seen the benefits of that and even our board and others are very much in-line with investing in that space."

Jefferson, through its academic and clinical entities of Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health, is attempting to re-imagine healthcare for the greater Philadelphia region and southern New Jersey.

With a university and hospital that date to 1824, Jefferson is comprised of six colleges, nine hospitals, 32 outpatient and urgent care locations, and a multitude of physician practices throughout the region, serving more than 96,000 inpatients, 363,000 emergency patients, and 1.9 million outpatient visits annually.

Disclosure: Asha Barbaschow travelled to Sapphire Now as a guest of SAP.

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