IBM forms Watson Health medical imaging collaborative

The tech giant has recruited 16 medical centers, radiology providers and other organizations in the health sector to advance cognitive imaging in health care.

After several months of beefing up the Watson Health Unit, IBM on Wednesday announced it has recruited 16 other entities involved in the health care sector to from a new Watson Health medical imaging collaborative.

The global collaborative aims to advance cognitive imaging in a range of medical specialties, from eye care to the treatment of heart and brain disease. The group plans to use Watson to analyze previously "invisible" unstructured imaging data, found in places such as radiology and pathology reports, as well as broad swaths of data collected from sources like population-based disease registries.

"There is strong potential for systems like Watson to help to make radiologists more productive, diagnoses more accurate, decisions more sound, and costs more manageable," Nadim Michel Daher, a medical imaging and informatics analyst for Frost & Sullivan, said in a statement. "This is the type of collaborative initiative needed to produce the real-world evidence and examples to advance the field of medical imaging and address patient care needs across large and growing disease states."

The founding members of the collaborative are: Agfa HealthCare, Anne Arundel Medical Center, Baptist Health South Florida, Eastern Virginia Medical School, Hologic, Inc., ifa systems AG, inoveon, Radiology Associates of South Florida, Sentara Healthcare, Sheridan Healthcare, Topcon, UC San Diego Health, University of Miami Health System, University of Vermont Health Network, vRad, as well as Merge Healthcare, an IBM company.

IBM acquired Merge last year for $1 billion, underscoring the value in medical imaging for IBM and the huge potential to deploy Watson's cognitive computing capabilities in the health sector overall. IBM plans to combine Watson's capabilities in medical image reading with its health analytics capabilities -- earlier this year, the company acquired Truven Health Analytics in a deal valued at $2.6 billion.

In its announcement today, IBM noted how valuable cognitive computing should be to the health care sector. The company cited a study suggesting that the U.S. wastes more than $1 trillion in inadequate, unnecessary, uncoordinated, and inefficient health care, as welll as suboptimal business processes in the industry. Meanwhile, Frost & Sullivan has projected the market for artificial intelligence in the health care industry should reach $6 billion by 2021.

Of course, in addition to saving money, cognitive computing could help improve care -- medical error is the third leading cause of death in the United States. IBM explained how members of the new collaborative could use Watson to treat problems like cardiovascular disease: Watson could be trained to analyze and "score" a coronary angiogram, which is a video image of a beating heart. Doctors use this scored (called a SYNTAX score) to help determine whether a patient needs a minimally invasive stent procedure or more serious treatment like a coronary artery bypass graft procedure.

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