Earlier this year, some of the world’s leading experts on artificial intelligence met in Puerto Rico for a private conference. The purpose? To determine whether or not intelligent machines would be good for human society or bad. Not surprisingly, IBM’s Watson Supercomputer was a central topic of discussion. First developed in 2005 by IBM Research, Watson enjoyed its first real moment in the spotlight when it defeated Jeopardy winners Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings. From there, it experienced a meteoric rise to fame, finding its footing in a host of different fields - healthcare among them. There, it has the potential to completely change the industry. “Most of the previous attempts to make a diagnostic AI have been pathetic failures, but Watson really works,” reads an article on Wired published last fall. “When, in plain English, I give it the symptoms of a disease I once contracted in India, it gives me a list of hunches, ranked from most to least probable. The most likely cause, it declares, is Giardia - the correct answer.” “This expertise isn’t yet available to patients directly,” the piece continues. “IBM provides access to Watson’s intelligence to partners, helping them develop user-friendly interfaces for subscribing doctors and hospitals.” When Watson - or something like it - does eventually see widespread use in healthcare, it’s going to be the capstone in a change that’s been a long time coming. I’m speaking, of course, about the healthcare industry’s poor relationship with technology. For every success story we see from hospitals - for every facility that’s managed to improve its patient registration systems or internal workflow - there seem to be ten that are still stuck in the past. Their communication systems are archaic and frustrating, their recordkeeping involves manually entering data on paper, and their technical infrastructure - if they even have any - is obtuse and difficult to use. This has led to something of an adversarial relationship between healthcare IT and general healthcare staff. We’ve touched on this in the past. It’s a sad truth that even though providers manage some of the most sensitive data in the world, they too often take a slapdash approach to securing it, with underfunded IT departments, poorly-designed legacy infrastructure, and a culture that simply doesn’t understand the digital risk. “In today’s digital era,” writes leading healthcare Analyst Robert M. Wachter, “a modern hospital deemed the absence of an electronic medical record system to be a premiere selling point. That hospital is not alone. A 2013 RAND survey of physicians found mixed reactions to electronic health record systems, including widespread dissatisfaction. Many respondents cited poor usability, time-consuming data entry, needless alerts, and poor workflows.” This will change. As more providers begin to see the advantages offered by technological solutions such as Watson, and more IT departments use Watson’s abilities to improve their patient and clinician interfaces, healthcare will gradually get past its growing pains. When at last it does, we’ll be left with an industry that looks nothing like it does today; a thriving, technologically-advanced field where both patients and medical professionals get exactly what they need.