MEDICAL TECHNOLOGY The Digital Doctor in the House

IBM has developed a supercomputer called Watson Health that assists doctors in diagnosing patients. The system is about to make its debut in Germany, where it could help reduce time spent in the waiting room.
Digital Doctoring.

A German hospital operator plans to become the first in the country to introduce a supercomputer that will help doctors diagnose patients with rare conditions.

In cooperation with IBM, the Rhön-Klinikum Group will test the American technology giant's Watson Health system in a pilot program at its university clinic in Giessen-Marburg.

"If we don't want to leave the field to large companies like Google that are close to consumers, then we have to think about how we can sensibly change medical treatment through digitalization," Bernd Griewing, chairman of medicine and a neurology professor at Rhön-Klinikum, told Handelsblatt.

Watson Health is a cognitive computer system capable of understanding natural language, learning and making logical conclusions.

The addition of Watson as part of the Giessen-Marburg clinic's staff could reduce the long wait for hundreds of patients. Matthias Reumann, IBM's research center, Zurich

Launched by IBM last year, the supercomputer draws from a data cloud containing information on more than 300 million patients, thousands of clinics and more than 1.2 million scientific papers.

A doctor feeds the electronic records and treatment guidelines of a patient into the supercomputer, which then cross references the patient's profile with the data cloud. Based on this digital analysis, Watson makes recommendations about possible treatment programs.

As a first step, doctors at the Giessen-Marburg university clinic plan to scan the records of 500 patients with rare diseases into the Watson Health system.

If the supercomputer's diagnoses and recommendations chime with those already made by the doctors, the clinic will likely introduce Watson as a full-time digital assistant.

The addition of Watson as part of the Giessen-Marburg clinic's staff could reduce the long wait, which currently stands at half a year, for hundreds of patients. Most of these patients with rare conditions have already been through an odyssey of doctors practices and clinics without a diagnosis.

"As a rule the patients bring 20 to 30 discharge papers with them," Mr. Griewing said.

If the introduction of Watson proves a success at Giessen-Marburg, Rhön-Klinikum may introduced the supercomputer at its other hospitals as well.

Rhön-Klinikum has become a mid-sized player in Germany's private hospital market. Two years ago, the hospital operator downsized by selling 40 of its 53 clinics to the health care company Fresenius. Leaner and meaner, it now generates €1.1 billion ($1.2 billion) in annual revenue.


Rhoen-Klinikum-01 Rhön


By comparison, Germany's largest private hospital operator, the Helios Group, has 111 clinics and generates just under €5.6 billion in revenue a year.

To keep up with the competition, Rhön-Klinikum is banking on investment in medical technology startups. Through its new subsidiary Rhön Innovations, the hospital operator plans to invest millions in startups, acquiring minority stakes in the companies.

Rhön-Klinikum is currently screening 140 startups with partners from the venture capitalist scene, but will pick only a handful for investment.

"We want to support unconventional and bold ideas," Jens-Peter Neumann, chief financial officer at Rhön-Klinikum, told Handelsblatt. "The goal must be concrete improvements in our medical performance that are of noticeable use for the patients."

Even the Watson Health system still has room for innovation, according to Matthias Reumann, who works at IBM's research center in Zurich.

Through the acquisition of the medical imaging company Merge, IBM plans to program Watson to support radiologists in analyzing x-rays and computed tomography scans.

"A radiologist in the emergency room looks at dozens, perhaps more than 100 x-rays and computed tomography scans a day," Mr. Reumann said. "It's been statistically proven that their eyes become tired over time and the diagnosis suffers as a result."

"We want Watson to come have a look," he said.


Maike Telgheder is an editor at Handelsblatt, covering the health economy, pharmaceutical companies and chemistry. To contact: [email protected]