IBM recently 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 health care 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 7,500 US health care sites, as well as most of the world's leading clinical research institutes and pharmaceutical firms to manage a growing body of medical images. The 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, EHRs, data from wearable devices, and other related medical data, in a HIPAA-enabled environment.
Under terms of the transaction, 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. 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 health care intelligence).
"As a proven leader in delivering health care solutions for over 20 years, Merge is a tremendous addition to the Watson Health platform. Health care 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," says John Kelly, senior vice president of IBM Research and Solutions Portfolio. "Watson's powerful cognitive and analytic capabilities, coupled with those from Merge and our other major strategic acquisitions, position IBM to partner with health care providers, research institutions, biomedical companies, insurers, and other organizations committed to changing the very nature of health and health care in the 21st century. Giving Watson 'eyes' on medical images unlocks entirely new possibilities for the industry."
Teaching Watson to "See" Medical Images
The planned acquisition bolsters IBM's strategy to add rich image analytics with deep learning to the Watson Health platform—in effect, advancing Watson beyond natural language and giving it the ability to "see." Medical images are by far the largest and fastest-growing data source in the health care industry and perhaps the world—IBM researchers estimate that they account for at least 90% of all medical data today—but they also present the following challenges that need to be addressed:
IBM plans to leverage the Watson Health Cloud to analyze and cross-reference medical images against a deep trove of lab results, EHRs, 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 health care providers in fields including radiology, cardiology, orthopedics, and ophthalmology to pursue more personalized approaches to diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring of patients.
Cutting-edge image analytics projects underway in IBM Research's global labs suggest additional areas where progress can be made. They include teaching Watson to filter clinical and diagnostic imaging information to help clinicians identify anomalies and form recommendations, which could help reduce physician viewing loads and increase physician effectiveness.
"As Watson evolves, we are tackling more complex and meaningful problems by constantly evaluating bigger and more challenging data sets," Kelly says. "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."
Watson Health and Merge Capabilities
Will Benefit Researchers, Clinicians, and Individuals
IBM's Watson Health unit plans to bring together Merge's product and solution offerings with existing expertise in cognitive computing, population health, and cloud-based health care intelligence offerings to do the following:
"Merge is widely recognized for delivering market leading imaging workflow and electronic data capture solutions," says Justin Dearborn, CEO of 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."
"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 health care technology," says Michael W. Ferro, Jr., Merge's chairman. "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."