IBM is planning to advance Watson’s natural language processing (NLP) capabilities by giving Watson ‘eyes’ to review and interpret medical images.

IBM has announced plans to acquire Merge Health Inc., a leading provider for medical imaging software for $1 billion, with the hopes of unlocking the value of medical images to help doctors make better patient care decisions.

“Watson’s powerful cognitive and analytic capabilities, coupled with those from Merge and our other major strategic acquisitions, position IBM to partner with healthcare providers, research institutions, biomedical companies, insurers and other organisations committed to changing the very nature of health and healthcare in the 21st century,” said Senior Vice President IBM Research and Solution’s Portfolio, John Kelly.

Merge’s medical imaging platforms are used at more than 7,500 U.S. healthcare sites, as well as clinical research institutes and pharmaceutical firms to manage medical images. These organisations will be able to use the Watson Health Cloud to collect and analyse data such as patient’s historical images, electronic health records (EHRs), data from wearable devices and other health-related data. Merge’s clients will be able to compare new medical images with a patient’s image history as well as populations of similar patients to detect changes and anomalies.

According to IBM, insights generated by Watson could help healthcare providers in the fields of radiology, cardiology, orthopaedics and ophthalmology to pursue more personalised approaches to diagnosis, treatment and monitoring of patients.

Other projects underway include teaching Watson to sift through 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,” said Kelly.

“Medical images are some of the most complicated data sets imaginable, and there is perhaps a 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,” said Kelly.

Since launching the Watson health unit this past April, IBM has expanded its footprint in the healthcare analytics field through acquisitions such as Phytel and partnerships with other institutions, including Apple and Johnson and Johnson. Last year IBM and South Africa’s leading medical schemes administrator, Metropolitan Health, joined forces to bring the first commercial application of Watson in the country.

By tapping into Watson’s big data capabilities, Metropolitan Health aims to transform health advisory services to its customers. This is a significant move to enhance and personalise health services in South Africa as well as drive outcomes-based services to citizens on the African continent.

For more information contact news@eHealthNews.co.za, like us on Facebook or tweet us @eHealthNewsZA.