How MD Anderson Plans to Democratize Specialists’ Expertise

In today’s provider-centric healthcare system, access to high-quality care largely depends on a patient’s proximity to the hospitals and clinics where relevant specialists work.

This is especially true when it comes to high-quality cancer treatment. At the University of Texas’s MD Anderson Cancer Treatment Center—widely regarded as one of the preeminent cancer hospitals in the United States—oncologists are frustrated that the reach of their expertise is limited to the few that are able to travel to the MD Anderson facilities.

“We have to free ourselves from the constraints of where we can find expertise,” said Dr. Lynda Chin, associate vice chancellor of the University of Texas System, last week at the Xconomy Healthcare Summit in Cambridge. “It needs to be where we live and work.”

In a moonshot attempt to democratize expertise and challenge the current provider-centric model of oncology care, Chin and her colleagues at MD Anderson are developing the Oncology Expert Advisor, a 24/7 on-demand reference tool for general oncologists, powered by IBM’s Watson Health. “We built it to simulate the experience of an exchange between a generalist and a specialist,” explained Chin. The goal is that generalist physicians around the globe will use this system to access the ever-evolving expertise of oncologists at MD Anderson, and thereby provide their patients with high-quality care. In the current era of Big Data, it is impossible for individual physicians to stay abreast of all medical knowledge relevant to their practice. The doctors at MD Anderson are leveraging Watson’s artificial intelligence to sort through the exogenous medical data currently available.

Image courtesy of MD Anderson.

Image courtesy of MD Anderson.

Massive amounts of data, including guidelines, literature, genetic data and treatment histories, feed into the Oncology Expert Advisor with the hope that the program will read individual charts and benchmark personalized data against its vast knowledge base to produce treatment recommendations, adverse event profiles and supporting evidence. Treatment recommendations will hopefully include matching patients with clinical trials listed in the U.S. National Institute of Health’s clinical trial database, clinicaltrials.gov.

The Oncology Expert Advisor is a “human-machine hybrid.” It includes a built-in telecommunication component for the times when the computer can’t provide appropriate answers. Furthermore, the system is constantly learning from real doctors. Oncologists at MD Anderson continually “train” the Oncology Expert Advisor by manually inputting what they believe is the best treatment option for individual cases along with the reasons why.

MD Anderson is working with a variety of industry partners to create the network infrastructure to ensure the Oncology Expert Advisor operates effectively. In addition to IBM Watson, the center has partnered with AT&T to build a secure communications network over which patient data can be safely transmitted and with Pricewaterhouse Coopers to develop a compliant cloud-based data aggregation platform.

With the help of these institutional partners, the Oncology Expert Advisor is leveraging clinicians’ expertise, connected analytics, telemedicine and cognitive computing to reimagine a distributed healthcare system.

Abigail Ballou

Abigail Ballou

    Abby Ballou is the managing editor of MedTech Boston. She has a B.A. and M.Phil in English literature from NYU and the CUNY Graduate Center, respectively. When she isn't writing and editing for MedTech Boston, Abby enjoys reading, rock climbing, watching classic movies and listening to opera.

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