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IBM, Merge Healthcare Plans: Giving Watson The Gift Of Sight

IBM is planning to acquire Merge Healthcare, a company that specializes in medical imaging software. The goal is to bring enhanced imaging capabilities to the Watson Health portfolio, essentially giving the supercomputer the ability to see.
Supercomputers Unleash Big Data's Power
Supercomputers Unleash Big Data's Power
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IBM is continuing its expansion into the healthcare analytics field with the planned acquisition of Chicago-based Merge Healthcare, a medical-imaging software company, for $1 billion.

Merge will provide imaging data that IBM's Watson engine will use to analyze CAT scans, X-rays, and mammograms.

Merge's technology platforms are used at more than 7,500 US healthcare sites, as well clinical research institutes and pharmaceutical firms, to manage medical images.

IBM set up its Watson health business last April. It started with the smaller acquisitions of medical data providers Explorys (cloud-based healthcare intelligence) and Phytel (population health), as well as partnerships that involved Apple, Medtronic, and Johnson & Johnson. The company is also developing the Watson Health Cloud, a data-sharing and application-development platform designed for IBM clients and partners to safely and securely pool de-identified data from genomic and electronic medical records, clinical trials, and health-monitoring devices, and combine it with socio-economic and demographic information.

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IBM's efforts in training Watson to analyze images have been going on in its research centers for the last two years. Other projects underway include teaching Watson to filter clinical and diagnostic imaging information (which would help clinicians identify anomalies) and form recommendations from the images presented. With these efforts, IBM aims to help reduce viewing loads for physician and increase physician effectiveness.

For example, a radiologist usually analyzes images for abnormalities by examining the image alone. IBM's concept is that by using the Watson engine to link the image to other information, such as the electronic health record of a patient, more subtle abnormalities may be detected.

Data from wearable devices and other related medical data in a HIPAA-enabled environment could also be added into the analytic mix.

John Kelly, senior vice president, IBM Research and Solutions Portfolio, said in a prepared 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."

An IBM spokesperson told InformationWeek in an email: "We've had tremendous receptivity from the healthcare community to Watson, as evidenced by the growing roster of partners and collaborators who are joining us to bring Watson's cognitive computing power to advance health."

Hinting that this is just one step in an extended process, the spokesperson went on to say: "Expect to see IBM Watson and IBM Watson Health enter into more landmark relationships and announce more technology advances. In the last week alone we announced a new member of our genomics initiative with Tokyo University, a partnership with CVS Health to bring Watson to bear across the CVS health enterprise, and today's news that Watson is gaining 'sight' [through the Merge Healthcare imaging tools]."

Merge's clients, through use of the Watson Health Cloud, would be able to compare new medical images with a patient's existing image history, as well as with populations of similar patients in order to detect changes and anomalies.

Insights generated by Watson could then help healthcare providers in fields including radiology, cardiology, orthopedics, and ophthalmology, according to IBM.

Merge shareholders would receive $7.13 per share in cash, for a total transaction value of $1 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.