How IBM's Watson Could Make a Difference in Medical Imaging

Nancy Crotti

February 10, 2016

2 Min Read
How IBM's Watson Could Make a Difference in Medical Imaging

Researchers at the high tech giant are retooling imaging software so that the Watson supercomputer can draw insights from medical images. 

Nancy Crotti

IBM researchers are preparing to take software that enables its supercomputer Watson to "see" and "read" images into the realm of real patient data.

IBM (Armonk, NY) obtained the software in October through its $1 billion acquisition of Chicago-based Merge Healthcare, whose medical imaging management platform is used at more than 7500 U.S. healthcare sites, as well as many of the world's leading clinical research institutes and pharmaceutical firms.

Code-named Avicenna after an 11th-century philosopher who wrote a medical encyclopedia, the software might help radiologists to work faster and more accurately, according to a report in MIT Technology Review.

Avicenna would help radiologists reach a diagnosis by comparing a patient's other images and electronic health data, Watson general manager Deborah DiSanzo told the Chicago Tribune.  The program works with cardiology and breast radiology, but an IBM researcher told Technology Review that the company is preparing to test the software outside the lab on large volumes of patient data, which it obtained with the Merge acquisition.

The researchers have programmed Avicenna's image-processing algorithms with "deep learning" and different specialties. Some can judge how far down a patient's chest a CT scan slice was taken, according to the Technology Review article. Others can label organs or anomalies such as blood clots.

The company is working on improving Avicenna's accuracy and flexibility, but does not intend to replace radiologists, the article said.

Stephen Holloway, associate director for IHS Inc., noted last year that Watson might eventually demonstrate an ability to join the dots by drawing on a wealth of other medical diagnostic information gathered from the health and medical record data of a huge population.

"If this happens, radiologists may increasingly find themselves redefining their role in care provision," Holloway said.

The work on smarter imaging software is but another example of how IBM is seeking to bring Watson's powers to bear on healthcare.

In other areas, IBM's newly formed Watson Health unit and Medtronic are working to bring innovative diabetes technologies to patients. The goal is to develop a Watson-enabled app that enables a Medtronic device to continuously gather and analyze data in real-time. 

Nancy Crotti is a contributor to Qmed and MPMN.

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About the Author(s)

Nancy Crotti

Nancy Crotti is a frequent contributor to MD+DI. Reach her at [email protected].

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