Watson gifted sight as IBM locks in $US1 billion health acquisition

“Giving Watson ‘eyes’ on medical images unlocks entirely new possibilities for the industry."

IBM has announced that Watson will gain the ability to ‘see’ by bringing together Watson’s advanced image analytics and cognitive capabilities with data and images obtained from Merge Healthcare Incorporated’s medical imaging management platform.

IBM plans to acquire Merge, a provider of medical image handling and processing, interoperability and clinical systems designed to advance healthcare quality and efficiency, in an effort to unlock the value of medical images to help physicians make better patient care decisions.

Merge’s technology platforms are used at more than 7500 US healthcare sites, as well as most of the world’s leading clinical research institutes and pharmaceutical firms to manage a growing body of medical images.

According to the tech giant, the vision is that these organisations 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, in a HIPAA-enabled environment.

“As a proven leader in delivering healthcare solutions for over 20 years, Merge is a tremendous addition to the Watson Health platform,” says John Kelly, senior vice president, IBM Research and Solutions Portfolio.

“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 organisations 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.”

Under terms of the transaction, Merge shareholders would receive $US7.13 per share in cash, for a total transaction value of $US1 billion.

The closing of the transaction is subject to regulatory review, Merge shareholder approval, and other customary closing conditions, and is anticipated to occur later this year.

It is IBM’s third major health-related acquisition - and the largest - since launching its Watson Health unit in April, following Phytel (population health) and Explorys (Cloud-based healthcare intelligence).

“As Watson evolves, we are tackling more complex and meaningful problems by constantly evaluating bigger and more challenging data sets,” Kelly adds.

“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.”

Kelly says the planned acquisition bolsters IBM’s strategy to add image analytics with deep learning to the Watson Health platform - in effect, advancing Watson beyond natural language and giving it the ability to ‘see.’

According to Kelly, medical images “are by far the largest and fastest-growing data source in the healthcare industry” and perhaps the world, with IBM researchers estimating that they account for at least 90 percent of all medical data today.

Consequently, IBM plans to leverage the Watson Health Cloud to analyse and cross-reference medical images against a deep trove of lab results, electronic health records, genomic tests, clinical studies and other health-related data sources, already representing 315 billion data points and 90 million unique records.

Merge’s 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 healthcare providers in fields including radiology, cardiology, orthopedics and ophthalmology to pursue more personalised approaches to diagnosis, treatment and monitoring of patients.

“Merge is widely recognised for delivering market leading imaging workflow and electronic data capture solutions,” says Justin Dearborn, CEO, Merge.

“Today’s announcement is an exciting step forward for our employees and clients.

"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."

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