The growth of big data, analytics and cognitive computing is revolutionizing a wide range of industries. But nowhere is the impact more significant than in health care, where mountains of data define everything from treatment modalities to clinical trials.
One organization that’s taking full advantage of these technologies is the Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic, which conducts sophisticated clinical trials and treats more than a million people from the United States and 150 countries. The facility must track research and develop individualized treatment plans that better meet patient needs, particularly in the oncology field.
“Information technology plays an increasingly important role in health care,” says Nicholas LaRusso, M.D., a hepatologist and project lead for the Mayo Clinic. “It’s important to use the most advanced computing and analytical methods to provide the highest level of patient care.”
At any given moment, the facility must sort through more than 8,000 human studies conducted at the clinic, as well as more than 170,000 trials taking place worldwide. “The conventional way we match patients is heavily human based and is extremely complex and time-consuming,” LaRusso explains.
Currently, the clinic relies on nurse coordinators, oncologists, project managers and technical experts to sift through all the data. Overall, about 50 to 60 professionals are involved with the matching process. They comb through files and records manually and then identify the right clinical trials for patients.
However, beginning in early 2015, Mayo Clinic will rely on IBM’s Watson technology to better match cancer patients with appropriate clinical trials, particularly in the areas of treating colon, breast and lung cancers. Watson uses natural-language processing and customized algorithms to deliver better matches at a much faster rate.
“The use of cognitive computing will improve the process by orders of magnitude,” LaRusso predicts. “We will be able to significantly expand the scope. With doctor shortages and enormous pressure on the health care system, it’s a way to squeeze out better results.”
Another benefit of the technology, he points out, is that many clinical trials never take place due to insufficient enrollment. Despite an enormous infrastructure and complex systems designed to promote clinical trials, only about 5 percent of all patients enroll in them at the Mayo Clinic, and the national rate is even lower at 3 percent. Using cognitive computing, the facility hopes to boost the figure to 10 percent or more.
But there’s a cascade effect as well. Higher participation rates, in turn, produce better research outcomes and better treatments, LaRusso points out.
The Mayo Clinic is currently feeding massive amounts of data into Watson in order to expand its knowledge base, and it will continue to do so into the future. In fact, one of the challenges the organization faces is the growing volume of data, which includes lab results, radiological data, efficacy data and much more.
“It is becoming increasingly difficult for humans to manage all the data,” LaRusso concludes. “Cognitive computing provides dynamic assessment of natural language, information and massive amounts of data in a way that is transformational. It totally changes the medical landscape.”