IBM's Acquisition Of Merge Healthcare Brings Watson A Step Closer To Diagnosing Medical Images

IBM bought its Watson Health Cloud a pair of billion-dollar eyes Thursday to better examine its patients.

By acquiring Merge Healthcare, a global medical imaging pioneer headquartered in Chicago, IBM advanced its image gathering and dissemination capabilities, a significant step toward its goal of applying machine learning to diagnose diseases.

"We've identified health and health care as our moonshot opportunity," Kyu Rhee, a medical doctor who serves as IBM's chief health officer, told CRN. "Imaging data is such an important part of health-care technology."

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From a physician's perspective, Rhee said, visual analytics technology carries extraordinary potential to improve upon human diagnosis of medical images, from CAT scans to X-rays to MRIs.

"You think about all the data that exists out there, there's so much opportunity to apply cognitive computing and Watson for getting all the right insights to health-care providers," he said.

IBM's been developing cognitive systems that can make sense of the content of photos and videos for a decade now. The Merge acquisition complements those image-processing skills with a platform for sharing medical images across clinical environments.

Images, like 70 percent to 80 percent of all medical information, are unstructured data, Rhee pointed out.

The technology IBM is developing through Watson Health will offer benefits across medical practice areas -- cardiology, oncology, ophthalmology and orthopedics are but a few -- by leveraging Watson's cognitive computing abilities, he said

"No human, no doctor, can sift through all the information out there, all the clinical evidence that’s out there," Rhee said.

Matthieu Dejardins, CEO of Nextuser, an IBM partner in the San Francisco Bay area that brings to market Watson analytics, told CRN that Merge Healthcare was a logical next pickup in a series of IBM acquisitions.

The Merge platform will be especially powerful when integrated with technology obtained in March from AlchemyAPI, a cognitive computing program interface that enables deep learning directly by ingesting information, including pictures, from the Web.

IBM excels at analyzing text from documents, Dejardins said. That was the first great application of Watson -- to plow through health records and glean insights.

"This is where historically IBM Watson was very useful," Dejardins told CRN.

But IBM's intellectual property in analyzing voice and text can be expanded to visual mediums.

"The same capability with visual recognition is something that could be a revolution in medicine. It could analyze thousands of images in a few minutes," Dejardins said.

Another breakthrough could result from combining the image-processing capabilities with Internet-of-Things technologies like smart sensors.

"That's pretty interesting. That's the way of the future, I think," Dejardins told CRN.

Rhee told CRN that Merge was selected as an acquisition target for three reasons: reputation, technology and expertise.

The company has a quarter of a century of experience and presence in 7,500 medical facilities in the U.S. It has established a strong reputation among the medical community.

Merge's cloud-based solution gives doctors access to any image from any place at any time, he said. The e-clinical platform impressed IBM, Rhee said.

"We'll be able to improve and enable with Watson Health its capabilities and produce new solutions with them," Rhee said.

IBM paid 32 percent more than Merge's market capitalization at the close of Wednesday's trading. Questions linger about the potential technology's efficacy in successfully analyzing images, and whether insurers will embrace it, making the $1 billion acquisition a big bet for Big Blue.