IBM Acquisition of Merge Healthcare will Spur New Era of Radiology

StephenHollowayBy Stephen Holloway, Associate Director, Medical Devices & Healthcare IT, IHS Technology
Twitter: @IHS4Tech

IBM recently announced the acquisition of Merge Healthcare, one of the largest suppliers of medical imaging IT and vendor neutral archiving (VNA) globally.

IBM’s new and significant investment play into healthcare (following acquisition of Phytel Inc. and Explorys Inc. in the last year), is based on expanding the capability of IBM’s artificial intelligence (AI) platform ”Watson” to drive new diagnostic software for medical applications.

In the case of the Merge Healthcare acquisition, the “Watson” platform will now have access to more than half a billion medical images stored in Merge’s enterprise archive storage platform, with the intention of developing new image analytics capabilities.

However, little has been discussed on the implications to radiology or the impact on the medical imaging IT market. Below, we highlight three of the biggest impacts:

Disrupting dominance of the medical imaging “big guns”
A new deep-pocketed market entrant will certainly concern the big six industrial medical imaging suppliers (GE Healthcare, Philips Healthcare, Siemens Healthcare, Toshiba Medical Systems and Hitachi Medical and Samsung). Founded on industrial dominance in medical imaging device supply, most of these vendors have developed their own radiology IT solutions and platforms, growing their installed base through bundling with imaging hardware.

The emergence of enterprise storage and image management software vendors such as Merge and Lexmark Healthcare has also seen traditional imaging vendor share erode in the last five years. If IBM can make Watson AI products for image analytics clinically relevant and seamlessly integrate these tools into the EMR, control of the radiology IT market will increasingly shift away from traditional radiology IT vendors. It may even force a departure of industrial medical imaging suppliers away from IT software all-together, as most do not have the big data or analytics capability to compete.

Start of the radiologist vs. AI turf war?
Radiologists have continually battled to retain “ownership” of imaging the hospital, especially as use of technology has expanded widely across the clinical spectrum. If analytics and “machine learning” become a mainstream reality, a new turf-war over image reading and reporting will emerge.

In the short-term, IBM’s Watson will be looking to provide decision-support tools, much in the same way Computer Aided Diagnosis (CAD) software has been used in breast imaging for many years to assist radiologist reporting.

However, in the longer-term Watson will likely join-the-dots and combine imaging analytics with a wealth of other medical diagnostic information through integration of “big health” population health and medical record data. If this happens, radiologists may increasingly find themselves redefining their role in care provision.

Opening the door to new medical ethics and legal precedence?
Potentially the biggest stumbling block for the adoption of AI into healthcare is the potential legal and ethical issues associated with implementation.

Will AI decision-support tools remain just so, as decision support tool, or will over-time the judgement of physicians be called into question? With increasing electronic tracking of care management and metrics to ensure quality of care and drive efficiency, will reliance on such analytics override physician diagnosis?

How would this ethically and legally impact health providers? Could decision-support analytics tools be used as evidence to sue a physician for incorrect diagnosis and ignoring AI advice? Or would an AI analytics firm such as IBM be held accountable for advising incorrect diagnosis of a patient if the physician acts on the AI advice?

While the extent of AI implementation at scale may be some way off, the recent Merge acquisition and IBMs rhetoric on Watson’s potential does pose fundamental questions on use of big data and analytics in healthcare. What is certainly clear though, is that radiology will likely never be the same again.

About the Author: Stephen Holloway is an associate director in the medical device and healthcare IT research team, part of IHS technology. He manages a team of expert analysts in research and delivery of an extensive portfolio of market leading clinical care and medical imaging device market research studies. He has also been leading new projects focused on providing detailed Health Econometrics data covering global healthcare spending, infrastructure resources and disease prevalence and developing new research content for clients in the wider medical device industry. This article was originally published on IHS Technology and is republished here with permission.