The supercomputer will see you now

FORTUNE — Fans of television medical dramas are probably aware of the grim condition known as septic shock. But few people know that sepsis, a disease that causes the body to attack itself in an attempt to fight off infection, kills 258,000 Americans each year. Though easy to treat, sepsis is difficult to diagnose; hospital patients can go from asymptomatic to a state of shock in just a few hours.

Two fast-growing technologies, data analytics and mobile devices, could help solve vexing problems ranging from sepsis to cancer diagnosis. Large computer systems are increasingly crunching data — everything from medical journals to patients’ vitals — to recognize patterns. That has allowed intelligent software to alert doctors of impending problems via tablet or smartphone, making lifesaving treatment more timely.

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Wolters Kluwer Health, a division of the huge Dutch information-services firm, is currently testing such technology to identify and treat sepsis. The company recently began enrolling hospitals as pilot sites in its “sepsis mortality-reduction program.” James O’Brien, medical director of quality and patient safety at Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus, says, “If this is successful, it could cut the rate of death from sepsis in half.”

Watson, the IBM (IBM) supercomputer that made headlines by drubbing humans on Jeopardy! last year, is another example. The refrigerator-size machine is prepping for a second career as part of a trial program at New York City’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Watson relies on parallel processing — geekspeak for running multiple tasks at once — to sift through 500 gigabytes of data per second. A physician can enter the results of a biopsy, for example, and Watson pulls relevant bits of a patient’s history as well as clinical studies and medical journals. It then lists potential diagnoses and their varying “levels of confidence,” or probability. The final call is left up to the doctor.

It isn’t clear how much the market for such systems will eventually be worth. But the U.S. health care industry will spend some $69 billion on IT over the next six years, according to Insight Research Corp. Intel (INTC) and SAP (SAP) are already working with researchers at the University of California at Berkeley to develop a competing breed of medical supercomputer.

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But hospitals won’t buy into the idea until it has been proven to boost efficiency and trim costs. “What clinicians respond to is evidence,” explains Susan Desmond-Hellmann, an oncologist and the chancellor of the University of California at San Francisco.

Another problem: All the medical data and processing power in the world can’t teach a computer bedside manner. Not to mention that substituting algorithms for doctors would make for really dull TV.

This story is from the December 3, 2012 issue of Fortune.

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