Q&A: IBM's Kyu Rhee talks Watson and the future of healthcare

IBM made headlines Thursday when it announced its $1 billion acquisition of Merge Healthcare.

The deal, expected to close later this year, will help IBM’s Watson cognitive technology “see,” the company said, by combining it with Merge’s image management capabilities and knowledge base.  

Kyu Rhee, MD, IBM chief health officer, spoke with RadiologyBusiness.com about what the deal means for radiologists and healthcare as a whole.

RB: A lot of people first heard about Watson when it made its famous Jeopardy appearance. How has Watson changed since then, and what does this acquisition of Merge mean for this technology?

KR: We’ve been on this journey with Watson and this new age of cognitive computing. Watson represents a system that learns, that is cloud-based, that has the ability to process language, and that is able to see. At IBM, we like to take on the most important challenges that the world faces, and health and healthcare is one of those extraordinary challenges that we have.

Watson has evolved since you saw it on Jeopardy in so many areas in health and healthcare, from the work we’ve done in oncology, which has built extraordinary partnerships, to the work we’ve done with clinical trials matching with the Mayo Clinic and work we’ve done with the Cleveland Clinic in terms of learning how to be able to think like a doctor and learn medicine. And then we had the announcement we made a few months ago about the Watson Health unit, which continues to demonstrate our commitment towards health and healthcare with the two acquisitions we had— Explorys and Phytel—as a part of that announcement.

So, today’s announcement to acquire Merge—the leading provider of medical imaging, handling and processing, interoperability, and clinical systems—and the fact that their platforms are in over 7,500 U.S. healthcare sites is really an extraordinary opportunity to be able to leverage Watson in addressing that 90% of the medical data that is in medical images.

RB: What’s the next step for Watson?

KR: We’re already seeing that Watson is impacting the areas of health and healthcare where we need to think holistically, where we need to think in this comprehensive sense. In my experience in the healthcare system as a physician, I would work with paper-based records or records that were eventually electronic health records, and it was often disconnected with the images my patients would get. Whether it was from mammograms or x-rays, it was disconnected from the lab data, the demographic data, and the socioeconomic data.

The ability for IBM to connect these different sources of data, to apply cognitive computing and get the insight to the people who need it most, to help them make those important decisions they have, whether it’s a doctor or someone who manages a population, is where we are now, and where I see us in 5 to 10 years.

What’s great about Watson is it continues to learn and it continues to improve, so I think there’s extraordinary opportunity in addressing the challenges in health and healthcare around cost, quality, experience and engagement. Those are four key areas where I believe we’ll have a significant impact in health and health care.

RB: How do you see this acquisition impacting radiologists in the future?

KR: Your readers know that the volume of medical images can be just extraordinarily overwhelming. You think about a hospital emergency room—and I worked in ERs—and the amount of radiographs, MRIs, CT scans, x-rays, angiograms, all these different types of medical images. You could be presented with tens of thousands of those images that go through that setting. Watson is a tool that we’re looking at to help those radiologists extract insights from those medical images, which is often done manually.

This ability to intersect these different data sets I was referencing earlier, and to be able to connect them to leverage the Watson Health Cloud, to analyze and cross-reference these images, and then to be able to give insights to radiologists to help them make those important decisions on behalf of their patients, that’s the extraordinary opportunity.

You mention radiology, but we see the benefits of this for cardiology, orthopedics and ophthalmology as well, to pursue more personalized approaches to diagnose treatments in the monitoring of patients.

RB: Does this deal signify that IBM is focusing more on analysing that “Big Data” that gets mentioned so often?

KR: Big data, on its own, is not sufficient. It’s the ability to apply cognitive computing with Watson and to get the right insight. You could be stuck with what I call “analysis paralysis” with all of the big data that exists. The key is to leverage Watson, the cognitive computing system that can see images and can continuously learn and can connect to the evidence that changes every day, because there’s always new studies and new journal articles. It’s seemingly impossible for any doctor or for any person to go through all of that data and to mine it for those smart insights on their own.

I recall when I was practicing full time, and I would have all my charts, I would have my computer there to look up evidence-based guidelines, and I would have all these textbooks behind me. I was the trust broker of the relationship with that patient, but it was humanly impossible for me to go through all those medical records, go through the textbooks, know the recent journal articles and studies that were relevant to that case.

But to have Watson and cognitive computing as a doctor’s assistant in those situations, that’s what we’re looking to do. That’s what we’ve done with oncology, that’s what we’ve done in other areas as well in health and healthcare, and this is another important step in helping those physicians do their jobs better.

RB: What made Merge such a good fit for IBM’s needs as opposed to another imaging company?

KR: There were three major reasons why we chose Merge. One is the reputation. Over 25 years, they’ve developed an extraordinary reputation in the medical community. Another one is technology. They have some extraordinary cloud-based technologies that let you have access to any image at any time, and that’s important. The third one is their expertise. They’re a high-quality, experienced organization.

Editor’s note: Minor edits were made to these answers for length and clarity.