Why a medical doctor decided to join IBM Research

Dr. Sharbell Hashoul
Meet Dr. Sharbell Hashoul, radiologist and a member of the research team developing Medical Sieve, a technology to help radiologists tackle the big data coming from medical imaging systems. 

Sharbel is a radiologist finishing up his residency at Carmel Hospital in Haifa, Israel where he works in diagnostics and hands-on procedures, for breast imaging and cardiology. He dreams of using advanced technology to help transform the world of healthcare to better serve patients. By joining the team of IBM researchers working on the Medical Sieve project, he is helping make this dream a reality. He is one of several medical doctors working in IBM Research who are helping use technology to change the face of healthcare and wellness.

What’s it like to be a medical doctor working for IBM?
SH: I find it fascinating to approach medical problems from the point of view of a researcher. Up until now, I thought about medical diagnosis and treatment from the perspective of how it would affect my patients. Working with IBM Research, I now have to think of these solutions in terms of models that a computer could work with.

For example, when we drive, we move the steering wheel to the right and left to adjust the car so it stays in one lane. Now imagine trying to explain to someone else when their hands should move and in which direction. It gets tough. As a doctor, I can look at something and diagnose it, but translating how I reached my conclusions into computer models that imitate my train of thought is very challenging. 

How did you come to work for IBM?
SH: I met IBM researchers from Haifa when they were helping our doctors with a computer aided detection/diagnosis (CAD) system that checks the arteries in the neck that go to the brain. I was fascinated by the description of the projects they are doing at IBM Research – Haifa, and was happy to join the team when they needed an MD for the Medical Sieve project.

What is Medical Sieve?
SH: We’re building a cognitive medical system that will analyze images and use the patient’s medical history to help radiologists and other clinicians make the right decisions in a very demanding environment. The goal of the system is to provide radiologists with the relevant clinical history and suggest findings on different images to save time and minimize misjudgment and errors.

IBM Watson is already helping physicians with decision support for diagnosis and research, but it is primarily focused on text. Today, practicing medicine, and in particular treating cancer, also requires dealing with diagnostic imaging. In fact, 88 percent of all diseases studied at the National Institute of Health use Medical imaging.

At IBM Research – Haifa, together with our colleagues from Almaden, we have embarked on a journey to give Watson eyes, enabling it to read and interpret medical images. We call the system we are building Medical Sieve because it sifts through masses of data to bring physicians exactly what they need to make better decisions.

Medical Sieve is still a research prototype, but it’s an important stepping stone on the journey to the doctor’s office of the future, as we envision it.

How do you see the practice of radiology changing over the next five years?
SH: With the number of examinations and tests increasing dramatically from year to year, and the number of MDs specializing in radiology going down, we need to help radiologists work with greater volumes while maintaining diagnostic quality and accuracy. 

The use of imaging will become ever more critical as the use of smart contrast materials becomes more popular in diagnosis. For example, if we see a shadow in the lungs, we can’t always differentiate between an infection and a growth. With more accurate visual aids and smarter materials, we’ll be able to get a more accurate diagnosis without doing a biopsy.

Hopefully, we’ll also see more smart programs like Medical Sieve, which help physicians work more effectively – reducing the number of mistakes and increasing the amount of output. When I’m working at 3:00 a.m. and looking at a CT or stomach X-ray at the end of a 20-hour shift, there is always the risk of missing something important. If there is a system that can help point out problematic issues or provide decision support, everyone will benefit.

Tell us a bit about yourself. Why did you choose to study medicine?
SH: As a student, I deliberated between studying computers and medicine, and ended up going for my degree in medicine. When it was time to choose a specialty, I loved that radiology would allow me to use my medical knowledge but stay connected to the world of technology.  

I always try to maximize my productivity. Working as a physician, teaching at the university, working at IBM Research – all of them give me a chance to work with many people and feel passionate about what I do.And I’ve been married three years and became a father not long ago.

What advice would you give to other young MDs?
SH: Helping treat patients is our ultimate goal, but it’s also important to dedicate time to develop initiatives that will give back to the community – whether by getting to know engineers and helping startups in the area of healthcare, or by innovating with hi-tech people to close the gap between medicine and hi-tech so we can help the community and humankind. I believe it’s also important to be open to new ideas: open the door to the world of hi-tech and welcome it in.

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