Thursday, August 06, 2015

"Merge! Come Here! Watson Needs You!!"


I just received the notice (as did several thousand others) from Justin Dearborn, Merge CEO, that IBM has purchased Merge, and will incorporate it into the IBM Watson Health Unit. Here is the press release:

Chicago, IL, 06 Aug 2015

Armonk, NY and CHICAGO -- [August 6, 2015]: IBM (NYSE: IBM) today 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 (NASDAQ: MRGE) medical imaging management platform. IBM plans to acquire Merge, a leading provider of medical image handling and processing, interoperability and clinical systems designed to advance healthcare 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 U.S. healthcare 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, electronic health records, 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 healthcare intelligence).

“As a proven leader in delivering healthcare solutions for over 20 years, Merge is a tremendous addition to the Watson Health platform. 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, senior vice president, 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 healthcare providers, research institutions, biomedical companies, insurers and other organizations committed to changing the very nature of health and healthcare 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 healthcare industry and perhaps the world – IBM researchers estimate that they account for at least 90% of all medical data today – but they also present challenges that need to be addressed:

The volume of medical images can be overwhelming to even the most sophisticated specialists – radiologists in some hospital emergency rooms are presented with as many as 100,000 images a day.

Tools to help clinicians extract insights from medical images remain very limited, requiring most analysis to be done manually.

At a time when the most powerful insights come at the intersection of diverse data sets (medical records, lab tests, genomics, etc.), medical images remain largely disconnected from mainstream health information.

IBM plans to leverage the Watson Health Cloud to analyze 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, 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 said. “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 healthcare intelligence offerings to:

Offer researchers insights to aid clinical trial design, monitoring and evaluation;

Help clinicians to efficiently identify options for the diagnosis, treatment and monitoring a broad array of health conditions such as cancer, stroke and heart disease;
Enable providers and payers to integrate and optimize patient engagement in alignment with meaningful use and value-based care guidelines;

Support researchers and healthcare professionals as they advance the emerging discipline of population health, which aims to optimize an individual’s care by identifying trends in large numbers of people with similar health status.

“Merge is widely recognized for delivering market leading imaging workflow and electronic data capture solutions,” said Justin Dearborn, chief executive officer, 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 healthcare technology,” said 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.”

Interesting. Justin goes on to add a personal note:

We are very pleased to share some exciting news with you. Earlier today we announced that we have entered into a definitive agreement under which IBM will acquire Merge Healthcare. Through this transaction, Merge will become part of the IBM Watson Health unit. The plan is for the Merge management team to remain in place following closing. You may read the full press release here, but allow me to take this opportunity to tell you about the news directly and what it means for you.

Combining our strengths as a leader in healthcare imaging with IBM’s powerful Watson Health Cloud cognitive and analytic capabilities will enable us to expand the reach and effectiveness of our solutions. The vision is that healthcare organizations 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.

Additionally, we expect to benefit from the ample resources IBM can offer to support the continued growth and development of our business. In short, as a result of this transaction, Merge products will only become better and you will benefit from continued innovation to support your medical imaging needs.

I want to assure you that you can continue to expect the same level of service that you have come to rely on from Merge. Importantly, IBM will continue to support the Merge platform, and will continue to honor all existing contracts and agreements.

While we are very excited about today’s news, this announcement is just the first step in the process. The transaction is subject to regulatory review and shareholder approval. Until the transaction closes, which we expect will be later this year, we will remain an independent company, and it is business as usual. We remain focused, as we always have, on execution and results, and will continue to deliver the innovation and support that you have come to expect from us.

We’ll stay in touch as future developments take place, and we look forward to continuing to serve you.

Please do not hesitate to contact your Merge account manager with any questions.

What does this mean for us end users? Probably not much difference in service for the immediate future. But this does boost Merge significantly, now putting it up there with the other "big companies". Moreover, IBM does not have the previous stake that those others have with existing PACS software, etc., that has to be taken into consideration when moving forward.

This will prove interesting. I do recall Mike Ferro declaring that Merge would become the premier HIT company, and would eventually be worth $1 Billion. Looks like they made it.

Of course, now we have to worry that Watson will put us out of our jobs, but I'm not expecting that to happen for quite a while.

I wonder when Apple will take the plunge into the HIT pool. Between you and me, I was hoping Apple would be the suitor...


On Aunt Minnie, David Clunie asks about how Watson is going to get his electronic hands on the image data floating about the Merge systems. Good question.

I'll have to review my contract with Merge, but I doubt they have unfettered access to the images I store on my own SAN's. But for better or worse, the precedent for sharing ALL of your data has been established for the government at least by Meaningful (Ab)Use, which boils down to having the ability to transmit anonymized (ha ha ha) patient data to Washington.

IBM's somewhat nebulous goal is to teach Watson to "see", which I think Eliot Siegel, M.D., of the University of Maryland, has been doing anyway, and he's probably teaching it much better habits than I would. So acquiring Merge, an HIT/PACS/Cloud Storage company, would necessarily be all about connecting Watson with a very, very large database of images. I don't see any other reason for this purchase on IBM's part.

I still don't have much trepidation about Watson taking over my job, although I'm retiring soon anyway. Looking at the success of the driverless cars, and the problems they are having, tells me that my time line assessments aren't too far off. Driving a car is in many ways a much simpler problem to solve, in no small part because it is a 2D proposition rather than 3D.

In the short run, this purchase gives Merge complete solidity. There will be no more squawks of Merge being a small company whose future is uncertain. Will we Merge users see any huge boon in our day-to-day work? Probably not for quite a while.

I am anxious to get my chance to talk to Watson, though. I'm sure he has the answers to all of my questions. We'll start with "What is the meaning of life?" If the answer is "42", I'll have a complete meltdown.

1 comment :

Phil said...

Very interesting.....

Finally a company is entering the market that isn't either an inexperienced startup, or a company that treats PACS like an afterthought, not worthy of fixing important deficiencies (I am thinking of GE here).

IBM has been touting Watson as a radiology tool, but without any radiology presence. Clearly the ads were done with the knowledge that they would soon have that presence.

I am glad that a company that has shown the maturity to develop tools with the end point of efficacy. Rather than GE's endpoint of selling as many units as possible to people who don't even understand how a PACS is supposed to work.