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IBM's 1 billion dollar acquisition to give Watson vision

IBM has announced its plans to acquire the medical imaging group, Merge Healthcare, for $1 billion to combine Watson’s advanced image analytics and cognitive capabilities with data and images obtained from Merge Healthcare’ medical imaging management system.

The image analytics capabilities will be integrated into IBM's Watson Health platform, in an effort to unlock the value of medical images and help medical professionals improve treatment.

John Kelly, senior vice president, IBM Research and Solutions Portfolio said in a statement: ‘Merge is a tremendous addition to the Watson Health platform.’ He stated that ‘Watson’s powerful cognitive and analytic capabilities, coupled with those from Merge and our other major strategic acquisitions’ would position IBM to partner with healthcare providers, research institutions and other organisations ‘committed to changing the very nature of health and healthcare in the 21st century.’

IBM’s Watson is the first commercially available cognitive computing platform. The system, delivered through the cloud, analyses high volumes of data, understands complex questions posed in natural language, and proposes evidence-based answers.

IBM Watson Health Cloud will bring together clinical, research and social data from a diverse range of health sources, creating a secure, cloud-based data sharing hub, powered by the most advanced cognitive and analytic technologies.

This acquisition is just one of several investments made by IBM in recent years. IBM has invested significantly in Watson to integrate it with healthcare systems to increase its capabilities to process real world information such as medical images.

In 2011 IBM partnered with nuance communications to develop a commercial system that could exploit Watson’s capabilities to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of patients. In 2012 IBM partnered with Cleveland Clinic to increase the use of the Watson supercomputer in medical training.

In 2014 IBM launched new cloud services aimed using Watson’s cognitive intelligence accelerate research. One of the services, Watson Discovery Advisor uses Watson’s cognitive intelligence to save researchers time by pinpointing connections within the data. To develop the Watson Discovery advisor, IBM worked with key industry sectors such as publishing, pharmaceutical, biotechnology.

‘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,’ said John Kelly.

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, orthopaedics and ophthalmology to pursue more personalised approaches to diagnosis, treatment and monitoring of patients.

Merge’s technology platforms are currently used at more than 7,500 US healthcare sites, as well as some of the world’s leading clinical research institutes and pharmaceutical firms to manage a growing body of medical images.  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 Watson evolves, we are tackling more complex and meaningful problems by constantly evaluating bigger and more challenging data sets,’ said Kelly. ‘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.’

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