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IBM’s Watson supercomputer is coming to SA healthcare centres

You might recall IBM’s supercomputer Watson beating a quiz game of Jeopardy in 2011. The event marked a pivotal moment in our world’s history where a computer matched, or preceded, the skills and intelligence of a human being for the first time. Now, Watson is entering the medical industry in Africa.

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With Ebola weaving a thread of death through west African countries, from one country to the next, IBM and Metropolitan Health have announced the first commercial application of Watson in Africa.

Watson — the impressive computing platform that is able to interact in natural language with people — might not cure Ebola (or any disease for that matter) but it will improve the way in which Metropolitan interacts with customers, thus increasing the efficiency and efficacy of healthcare.

Dylan Garnett, CEO of Metropolitan Health, says that health technology plays a critical role in connecting the access-affordability-outcomes priorities for better health services:

IBM Watson and cognitive computing are helping us do more than simply fix basic breakdowns in treatment paths; we’re “leapfrogging” to deliver a market leading health outcome to the public. We intend to transform every customer interaction with insightful data and deliver the best personalised services and care available.

Metropolitan, a business unit of JSE-listed MMI Holdings and one of the largest medical schemes administrators in South Africa, hopes to utilise Watson to transform health advisory services to its customers.

Mike Rhodin, senior vice president, IBM Watson Group commented on the potential Watson harbours:

Putting Watson into the hands of customer service advisors is a critical milestone towards improving how we stay well and live smarter. […] Metropolitan Health’s innovative application is a good example of how Watson’s cognitive intellect has the potential to empower individuals and organizations. Today’s announcement is a great testament to Metropolitan Health, which prides itself on product innovation and customer engagement.

The IBM Watson Engagement Advisor will be configured, trained and introduced into the Metropolitan Health customer services environment where more than 12 million client interactions are handled each year.

IBM Watson will work as a “virtual coach” assisting Customer Services Agents with inquiries. Unlike a human, Watson can sift through roughly 200 million pages of data and analyse the information to provide precise responses in less than three seconds. This will benefit customer services agents and will enable them to answer queries at an alarming speed.

“We believe Watson will enable our Customer Service Agents to make better decisions, ultimately driving better health outcomes for the public,” says Garnett.

With time the hope is that Watson will be able to anticipate follow up questions and prompt agents to proactively share information. The future plans are more ambitious — once Watson has completely perfected to anticipate questions, it will be trained to respond where possible directly to customer inquiries thus allowing for a 24/7 access to health and wellness information. Metropolitan further hopes that Watson can learn expansive capabilities including business consulting, advanced analytics, healthcare informatics and IBM research assets.

“This is a continuation of our journey to deliver improved health and wellness outcomes-based services. It reinforces our commitment to providing more targeted, personalised services to customers that help them live smarter,” says Garnett.

Metropolitan Health is amongst the first companies globally to make use of cognitive technology to enable new and improved ways of meeting customer needs.

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