The basics of Watson's potential in healthcare are fairly simple to understand. Most clinical decision-support software parses so-called “structured” data—numbers in a fixed field. But Watson is able to parse “unstructured” data—natural language that can be vague, or include humor, irony, or sarcasm. That's what made it capable of navigating Jeopardy's numerous puns and double meanings.
Those capabilities offer enormous possibilities for healthcare, Watson's proponents told the audience of Congressional staffers and government affairs officials Wednesday. Watson may be able to understand the vast complexities of data in a typical electronic health record at speed, and reconcile that data with relevant studies from the medical literature, guidelines, or other sources.
But IBM may be worried that the government's regulatory structure stands in its way and so has supported the PROTECT (Preventing Regulatory Overreach To Enhance Care Technology) and SOFTWARE Acts, two bills that would deregulate the sector. The bills would also remove the possibility of the medical-device excise tax, since both are careful to redefine “software” as not being part of medical devices, which would make them ineligible for the tax.
The legislative branch has been taking more interest in digital health lately, and this event demonstrated that interest. The House Energy & Commerce committee has held a series of hearings—with more, presumably, forthcoming—on what it terms “21st Century Cures,” many of which focus on the possibility of digital innovation to improve care and reduce costs.
The IBM event comes more than a year after the first bill to deregulate health information technology was introduced. While the SOFTWARE Act has received a hearing in the Energy & Commerce Committee, neither bill has progressed since then.
That stall may explain the current advocacy. One industry source in favor of the bills said that “we need to maintain a level of attention to the issue as the session winds down,” and that future action on the bills might have to wait for a new Congress. It's possible that favorable midterm results will return a more favorable Congress.
Wednesday's event never directly connected the bills and the tax together, though Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) mentioned that he “feel[s] badly that we haven't gotten the medical-device tax repealed.”
“It's not a medical device,” Christopher Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said of Watson and products of its ilk. “This is cognitive enhancement.”
Follow Darius Tahir on Twitter: @dariustahir