IBM looks to let Watson Health 'see'

IBM looks to let Watson Health 'see'

IBM plans to acquire medical image handling and processing specialist Merge Healthcare for $1 billion.

IBM today moved to bolster the Watson Health platform with rich image analytics through the $1 billion acquisition of Merge Healthcare, a specialist in medical image handling and processing. It is the third health-related acquisition for IBM since the launch of the Watson Health unit in April.

Big Blue says the acquisition will give Watson the ability to "see" by bringing together advanced image analytics and cognitive capabilities with data and images from Merge's medical imaging management platform.

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

Kelly noted that the combination of Watson's cognitive and analytic capabilities and the capabilities gained from Merge and IBM's other recent major strategic acquisitions, positions IBM to partner with healthcare providers, research institutions, biomedical companies, insurers and other organizations committed to reimagining health and healthcare in the 21st century.

[ Related: How IBM Watson apps are changing 7 industries ]

More than 7,500 healthcare sites in the U.S., as well as leading clinical research institutes and pharmaceutical firms use Merge's technology platforms to manage their medical images. IBM hopes to bring these organizations to the Watson Health Cloud, providing a consolidated, patient-centric view of medical data in a HIPAA-enabled environment.

The capability to "see" medical images -- which IBM researchers estimate account for at least 90 percent of all medical data today -- would extend Watson's existing natural language capabilities, allowing the Watson Health Cloud to analyze and cross-reference medical images against lab results, electronic health records, genomic tests, clinical studies and other health-related data sources.

IBM says the insights generated could help healthcare providers in fields like radiology, orthopedics and ophthalmology provide more personalized approaches to diagnosis, treatment and monitoring of patients.

[ Related: IBM Watson adds hybrid cloud developer tools ]

IBM also intends to teach 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 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."

The acquisition is subject to regulatory review, Merge shareholder approval and other closing conditions. Under the deal, Merge shareholders would receive $7.13 per share in cash for a total of $1 billion. IBM said it anticipates closing the transaction later this year.

At the launch of the Watson Health unit in April, IBM announced plans to acquire Phytel (a specialist in population health) and Explorys (a specialist in cloud-based healthcare intelligence). It has since closed on the Phytel acquisition.

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