Big Blue just spent $1 billion to give Watson the ability to see. IBM’s supercomputer is getting an upgrade with technology acquired from Merge Healthcare, which will add data and images to Watson’s advanced image analytics and cognitive abilities.
Merge Healthcare has made a name for itself providing medical image handling and processing, interoperability and clinical systems that work to advance healthcare quality and efficiency. The company’s goal is to unlock the value of medical images to help physicians make better decisions. Currently, over 7,500 U.S. healthcare sites are using its services.
So how exactly will Watson be able to see? IBM will tap the Watson Health Cloud to pull up insights from a patient-centric view of current and historical images, electronic health records, data from wearable devices and other related medical data. IBM was quick to point out this would all happen in a HIPAA-enabled environment.
Tapping a Mass Opportunity
“Healthcare will be one of IBM’s biggest growth areas over the next 10 years, which is why we are making a major investment to drive industry transformation and to facilitate a higher quality of care,” said John Kelly, senior vice president, IBM Research and Solutions Portfolio. “Giving Watson ‘eyes’ on medical images unlocks entirely new possibilities for the industry.”
IBM is indeed betting big on healthcare. This is Big Blue’s third major acquisition in that sector this year. The company also acquired Phytel in the population health space and Explorys in the cloud-based healthcare intelligence arena. Since IBM has pegged medical images as the fastest-growing data source in the healthcare industry — the company’s researchers estimate that they account for at least 90 percent of all medical data — the Merge Healthcare acquisition is timely.
IBM did its homework and discovered the volume of medical images can be overwhelming — some radiologists are presented with as many as 100,000 images a day. Medical images are largely disconnected from mainstream health information. IBM will tap the Watson Health Cloud to analyze and cross-reference medical images against lab results, genomic tests, electronic health records, clinical studies and other health-related data sources.
We caught up with Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, to get his thoughts on IBM’s latest billion-dollar buy — and its potential impact. He told us Big Blue’s purchase of Merge Healthcare and its plan to integrate Watson’s analytics capabilities with that company’s radiology solutions could help to modernize critical healthcare processes and practices.
“Despite having to manage ever larger numbers of increasingly detailed medical images, radiologists still mostly rely on manual scanning and analysis,” King said. “That’s fine most of the time but mistakes can happen with potentially serious results if clinicians are tired or distracted.”
From his perspective, IBM is aiming to address those issues by developing Watson-enabled Merge Healthcare solutions that would be used to scan and analyze medical images, and help identify those that radiologists should examine more closely.
“The IBM-Merge technologies could be used to compare a patient’s current images with past records, and to analyze anonymized records to develop insights into specific maladies and conditions,” King said.
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