Monday, October 12, 2015

Watson Replacing Radiologists?

I like reading the Health Care Blog.  It typifies what is wrong with the management of the American Health Care system and I suppose blogs in general.  It is a steady stream of bad ideas and political rhetoric.  The best recent example was a little piece about radiologists called Will Watson Replace A Radiologist - Ask A Radiologist.  Radiologists either don't read this blog or they can't be bothered since the only comment at this point is from a rheumatologist on the necessary consultation and collegiality with radiologists.  The author of the main article is taking the perspective of being both threatening (Can the IBM Watson machine acquire the image reading capabilities of a human radiologist by "reading" a large set of clinical images and reading them at a much faster rate than a radiologist?) and advising (The only way that radiology will survive is to demonstrate their value to patients and colleagues by connecting with them?).  The author's conclusion is very explicit: Connect or be replaced.

Over the past thirty years my experience with radiologists has been positive and in some cases outstanding.  That dates back to the early days of being the medical student or intern responsible for carrying a stack of heavy and awkward films around.  I remember not having a film on a Cardiology rotation and regretting it: "Mr. Dawson - what made you think it was not a good idea to have the chest x-ray of this patient with mitral valve disease?"  From that point on radiologists were my friends.  That was an era before there was a lot of managed care penetration and I always rotated at public  hospitals and VA hospitals anyway.  You could always find a radiologist back in the dark confines of a reading room.  The interns and residents had certain staff members that were the go-to staff in terms of teaching and also amazing observations.  They always pointed out what we were missing.  They collected teaching files and teaching cases for us to learn from.  Reading rooms could be bizarre places in those days.  Very large films clamped on reading boxes.  In some cases entire rows of films - 10 to 12 wide, could be rotated on a belt device.  The radiologist would need to recall when they saw the film and press down on a foot pedal until the correct film popped up.  On many days row after row of films would need to be surveyed to find the one you wanted.  In the early days of spinal CT, many films had to be viewed on each patient.

I did not forget my positive experiences as a resident when I became an attending physician.  All the images I ordered on my patients had to be seen.  I would still go down and pull the films and where necessary review them with the radiologist.  Now I had neuroradiologists to work with and they were excellent.  The medium was changing.  Eventually all of the films went away and when I went down to radiology, the reading room was still there, but now it was a computer terminal with two monitors.  The images could be immediately manipulated to show the best view.  It was no longer necessary to pull the film off the cassette and illuminate it with a bright light.  I could always ask them questions, but as time went by they were under a greater time crunch.  Now all of the dictated reports were available on the phone system and you were encouraged to listen to all of the reports.  Asking to review a series of films without listening to that report was frowned upon.  At one point in time we were all members of the same clinic, but soon all of the radiologists were spun off into a different company.  They were the same people,  just no longer affiliated with our clinic.  By  that time managed care was trying to get everyone on a productivity scale and radiology seemed like an ideal speciality to crank up the productivity expectations.

In addition to the direct experience with radiologists, the author here also seems to not recognize the value of a human brain as a processor.  I teach neurobiology to students, residents, and physicians.  Part of the job of any lecturer is to help people stay awake.  Just before I delve into the frontal cortex and its connections to the ventral striatum, I put up a slide with a fact from one of my IEEE journals:

"Equivalent computing power (depends on the simulation) using today's hardware may require up to 1.5 gigawatts to power and that is equivalent to 0.1% of the US power grid or the output of a small nuclear power plant..."   IEEE Spectrum 2012

I ask the students to speculate on how the human brain has such a tremendous amount of processing power and how it is different from computers.  Even though the audience is generally tech savvy young physicians or students, I have never heard the correct answer.  One of the correct answers is the fact that the human brain is an unparalleled pattern matching device.  There are papers where it has been estimated we can each recognize about 80,000 unique patterns.  I start to go down the list and end with studies of radiologists, dermatologists and ophthalmologists demonstrating superior pattern matching and pattern completion skill.  But I also point out, it is why that you can't learn medicine from a textbook.  It is why you need clinical exposure before you can safely practice.   You need to acquire those skills.  To my knowledge, there have been no good papers written on available pattern matching in human diagnosticians compared with the cognitive tasks they face.  For example to be a good radiologist, how many unique patterns and variations do you need to be able to see - 10,000, 50,000?  The answer to that question is critical and yet we do not know the answer for radiology or any other medical specialty.  If the number if less than 80,000 (and we don't really know this confidence interval) - Watson may have the speed but not necessarily the accuracy.  Will Watson be analogous to the current ECG computer - a general normal/abnormal reading, a reading on measurable dimensions, and then not much on equivocal cases?  Only time will tell.

So I think this Health Care Blog post has the valuable lessons of most of their posts.  I don't know the author, but it is clear that he has not worked with radiologists as long as I have.  Not just the consultations backlit by reading boxes, but the telephone conversations about the best possible test to use to investigate the problem.  If he had worked with radiologists he would know that they have always been connected throughout the careers of most physicians.  The only obstacle to that connection has been corporate medicine.  The author's seemingly friendly advice is disingenuous.  If the business administrators who run health care really wanted radiologists connecting - they would get reasonable productivity compensation for that activity.  They would not need to connect and then run back to their terminal and read enough films to make up for the period of time they were in a conference or informally teaching residents from other specialities.  I think that the admonition to connect probably means to connect with the business administrators running the health plans.  Come back into the herd and let us tell you how many images to read, just like we tell other physicians how many patients they have to see.  Advising physicians on how to behave is also a well known strategy to manipulate them.

The real message is come back to the herd or be replaced, because there is nothing that would make an administrator's day more than replacing physicians with machines - especially physicians that they have no direct control over.

IBM knows that and I know that........

An equally important question is why Watson can't replace business administrators?  They seem to have the requisite lack of technical expertise and creativity.  They need a very basic level of pattern matching to do the job, certainly no training in it.  It would seem that a very basic program to optimize the working environment for physicians, health care workers and patients would be more ideal than dabbling in an area where real expertise and collegiality is required.  I can only conclude those concepts are alien to the ever expanding group of administrators whose reason for existence seems to be managing people - whether they need it or not.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

Supplementary:  Although I could not work it into the above post another insidious effect of corporations on medicine has been taking teaching out of the loop.  Radiology teaching files and teaching rounds were always a rich source of learning for students and residents.  It is a required skill on most board exams.  I recall approaching an administrator about preparing teaching slides for the residency in-training exam.  It is quite easy to copy de-identified images onto PowerPoint slides for review and these images routinely appear in all major medical journals.  I will never forget the response:

"Dr. Dawson - why would we want our images to appear on teaching slides?"

Just another sign of the apocalypse.



  1. And yet institutional psychiatry refuses to embrace it's low-tech advantage. While promoting business models that will lead to its obsolescence since Watson can easily be programmed with a treatment algorithm.

    1. I don't think you need a computer to interpret a PHQ-9 score.

      Managed care is doing their best to make psychiatry and psychiatrists obsolete by dumbing down the entire field to a checklist and a prescription that just about anybody can do.

      I think they have succeeded - at least the APA seems to think so.