News Feature | June 23, 2016

IBM Forms "Medical Imaging Collaborative" To Fight Cancer, Heart Disease

By Jof Enriquez,
Follow me on Twitter @jofenriq


IBM is forming a “Watson Health medical imaging collaborative” with sixteen leading health systems, academic medical centers, ambulatory radiology providers, and imaging technology companies to help clinicians utilize IBM Watson cognitive imaging analysis in diagnosing increasingly prevalent disorders, such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

Under the global initiative, Watson will pool and crunch ‘invisible’ unstructured imaging data and combine it with anonymized information from electronic health records, radiology and pathology reports, lab results, doctors’ progress notes, medical journals, clinical care guidelines, and published outcomes studies. Insights gleaned from Watson's analysis will help doctors come up with tailored treatment plans.

“With the ability to draw insights from massive volumes of integrated structured and unstructured data sources, cognitive computing could transform how clinicians diagnose, treat and monitor patients,” said Anne Le Grand, who recently joined IBM as VP of Imaging for Watson Health, in a press release. “Through IBM's medical imaging collaborative, Watson may create opportunities for clinicians to extract greater insights and value from imaging data while better managing costs.”

Partner organizations can integrate Watson into their workflow management or image management software to help clinicians prevent diseases before they worsen and become costlier. For example, IBM said Watson could be trained to reasonably predict a future heart attack by finding previous instances of chest pain, a leading reason of emergency room visits. Further, Watson could analyze a coronary angiogram then provide cardiologists with a SYNTAX grading score to determine if a patient needs a bypass procedure or a stent implantation.

Other planned therapy areas include diabetes, eye care, brain disease, and cancer in a variety of patient care environments, ranging from stand-alone ambulatory settings to integrated health delivery networks, and from rural community hospitals to large academic medical centers in urban areas.

“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,” said Nadim Michel Daher, a medical imaging and informatics analyst for Frost & Sullivan. “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 initial members under IBM Watson's initiative 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, and vRad (a MEDNAX company), as well as Merge Healthcare, a medical imaging company acquired by IBM last year.

“The partners will use the learnings [from applying Watson technology] for both research and clinical practice,” Le Grand told MedCity News. “It can help in terms of population health, as well as for improving diagnostic accuracy.”

Companies are launching imaging analysis platforms that promise to diagnose conditions better than traditional imaging analyses done by humans, which are subjective and operator dependent. Philips just bought digital imaging analysis (DIA) and software firm PathXL and inked a licensing agreement with software firm Visiopharm to conduct cancer cell and tumor analysis. It also has a partnership with Mount Sinai Health System to create a state-of-the-art digital image repository of patient tissue samples and apply innovative data analytics to unlock pathology insights.

Steven Tolle, chief strategy officer for Watson Health Imaging, told Forbes in an interview that the intended reach of IBM Watson's collaborative will be broader than rivals.

“They partner with one partner and go after one disease,” he said in the interview. “That’s not good enough. We are going to go after 16 partners and go after the entire body, starting with the diseases that cost the most and kill the most.”

Since IBM created Watson Health last year, the healthcare subsidiary has raked in nearly $18 billion in revenue, as of the earnings call held in January. The unit has forged alliances with industry bigwigs Medtronic, Johnson & Johnson, and Apple to run Watson's cloud and analytics software in medical and consumer devices.