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IBM Watson Health Launches Imaging Effort for Cancer, Other Diseases

Xconomy Boston — 

So far, the story of IBM Watson Health has been mostly about growth and potential. Today, it’s more about action.

The healthcare computing giant, now headquartered in Cambridge, MA, is unveiling a collaborative effort in medical imaging that includes partnerships with health systems, radiology providers, tech companies, and academic medical centers.

Watson Health is pushing the idea of “cognitive imaging”—using computers to understand and draw clinical insights from images and other medical data—to try to help doctors provide better care at lower cost than the status quo. Think computer vision and data-analysis techniques applied to radiology scans and patient records to improve detection of diseases.

If that all sounds optimistic, well, of course it is. So is the scope of the new IBM collaboration, which spans cancer (breast, lung, and others), eye health, diabetes, brain disease, and cardiovascular disease. Watson Health is teaming up with 16 partners, which include imaging and diagnostics company Hologic; Sentara Healthcare; Sheridan Healthcare; UC San Diego Health; University of Miami Health System; and Merge Healthcare, which was acquired by IBM last year and is now part of Watson Health.

“What we really want to do is augment what physicians can do, how they can look at copious quantities of information that are relevant to a patient,” says Anne LeGrand, vice president of imaging at Watson Health, in an interview. “Watson will learn from that, and be a better partner to physicians.”

LeGrand (pictured) is leading the collaborative effort. She’s based in the Seattle area and joined Watson Health in April after a nearly 30-year career at companies such as Philips and GE Healthcare. She knows imaging, but she also knows how it connects to business and people. “You always have to have the patient at the core of what you do,” she says. “Personally, it’s why I come to work, and why I love this space.”

Watson’s imaging initiative is hard to quantify in terms of dollars and people—but it’s big. Watson Health has 5,000-plus staff, and together with its partners, it’s safe to say many thousands of people are involved. “When you look and say we just spent $4 billion in just under 12 months—IBM’s definitely spending,” LeGrand says. She’s referring to how much Watson Health has spent on growth, including acquisitions like Merge and Truven Health Analytics.

The first commercial product to come out of the effort is likely to hit in 2017. It will be a “summary platform” for electronic medical records, LeGrand says, “to aid physicians and augment intelligence… in understanding clinically relevant information.” That means doctors should be able to use Watson to read and digest health records, lab results, radiology reports, and relevant medical literature. The challenge lies in presenting the insights in a way that helps doctors with their diagnoses and treatment plans, without adding to their workload. (No word yet on any financial terms for IBM’s partners in developing the product; LeGrand will say more about the effort at today’s Influx conference in Boston.)

LeGrand calls the approach “augmented intelligence,” as opposed to artificial intelligence. “This is not taking the place of physicians,” she says. Rather, it’s “anything we can do to make them more effective, efficient, and well informed so there’s things they don’t have to think about, and they’re well prepared.”

Down the road, LeGrand sees potential uses for Watson Health outside of clinics, perhaps in wearable devices, preventive care in the home, and connections to other parts of the healthcare ecosystem. In particular, she says, Watson’s machine-learning approach—using data from the imaging collaborations, among others—could help it become a “predictive” tool that can make recommendations based on things like patient demographics, geographies, and family histories.

LeGrand is also prescient enough to predict that her “30 years in imaging and informatics will be worth three years” of machine-augmented learning. Which is all to say that Watson Health may uncover new paths that none of us can yet imagine.