IBM's $1B Medical Imaging Buy Lets Watson 'See'

IBM plans to buy Merge Healthcare for $1 billion to add medical imaging to the list of Watson's capabilities.

IBM big data

IBM announced that its Watson cognitive computing system will gain the ability to "see" by bringing together Watson's image analytics capabilities with data and images obtained from Merge Healthcare's medical imaging management platform.

In addition, IBM said it plans to acquire Merge in a deal worth $1 billion. Merge is a provider of medical image handling and processing services and clinical systems. With the acquisition, IBM claims it will advance health care quality and efficiency by unlocking the value of medical images to help physicians make better patient care decisions.

More than 7,500 U.S. health care sites use Merge's technology. IBM's vision is that these organizations could use the Watson Health Cloud to surface new insights from a consolidated, patient-centric view of current and historical images, electronic health records, data from wearable devices and other related medical data.

"As a proven leader in delivering healthcare solutions for over 20 years, Merge is a tremendous addition to the Watson Health platform," said John Kelly, senior vice president of IBM Research and Solutions Portfolio, in a statement. "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. Watson's powerful cognitive and analytic capabilities, coupled with those from Merge and our other major strategic acquisitions, position IBM to partner with healthcare providers, research institutions, biomedical companies, insurers and other organizations committed to changing the very nature of health and healthcare in the 21st century. Giving Watson 'eyes' on medical images unlocks entirely new possibilities for the industry."

IBM plans to use the Watson Health Cloud to analyze and cross-reference medical images against a massive amount of lab results, electronic health records, genomic tests, clinical studies and other health-related data sources, which already represents 315 billion data points and 90 million unique records, IBM said. Merge clients could compare new medical images with a patient's image history as well as populations of similar patients to detect changes and anomalies. Insights generated by Watson could then help health care providers in fields including radiology, cardiology, orthopedics and ophthalmology to pursue more personalized approaches to diagnosis, treatment and monitoring of patients.

IBM officials said medical images are by far the largest and fastest-growing data source in the health care industry. Indeed, IBM researchers estimate that they account for at least 90 percent of all medical data today. Yet, the volume of medical images can be overwhelming—radiologists in some hospital emergency rooms are presented with as many as 100,000 images a day, according to IBM Research. Tools to help clinicians extract insights from medical images remain very limited, requiring most analysis to be done manually. And while medical insights are more readily gleaned from looking at diverse data sets—such as medical records, lab tests and genomics—medical images remain largely disconnected from mainstream health information.

Meanwhile, IBM Research has a few other image analytics projects under way, including teaching Watson to filter clinical and diagnostic imaging information to help clinicians identify anomalies and form recommendations.

"As Watson evolves, we are tackling more complex and meaningful problems by constantly evaluating bigger and more challenging data sets," Kelly said. "Medical images are some of the most complicated data sets imaginable, and there is perhaps no more important area in which researchers can apply machine learning and cognitive computing. That's the real promise of cognitive computing and its artificial intelligence components—helping to make us healthier and to improve the quality of our lives."

IBM's Watson Health unit plans to bring together Merge's product and solution offerings with existing IBM expertise in cognitive computing, population health and cloud-based health care intelligence.

"Becoming a part of IBM will allow us to expand our global scale and deliver added value and insight to our clients through Watson's advanced analytic and cognitive computing capabilities," said Justin Dearborn, CEO of Merge, in a statement.

"Combining Merge's leading medical imaging solutions with the world-class machine learning and analytics capabilities of IBM's Watson Health is the future of healthcare technology," said Michael W. Ferro Jr., Merge's chairman, also in a statement. "Merge's leading technology and proven expertise represent a unique combination of assets that will deliver unparalleled value to Watson Health clients. Together, we will unlock unprecedented new opportunities to improve patient diagnostics and deliver enhanced care."