Burdenless Incidental AI

A team of IBM Watson Health researchers developed an interesting image and text-based AI system that could significantly improve incidental lung nodule detection, without being “overly burdensome” for radiologists. That seems like a clinical and workflow win-win for any incidental AI system, and makes this study worth a deeper look.

Watson Health’s R&D-stage AI system automatically detects potential lung nodules in chest and abdominal CTs, and then analyzes the text in corresponding radiology reports to confirm whether they mention lung nodules. In clinical practice, the system would flag exams with potentially missed nodules for radiologist review.

The researchers used the AI system to analyze 32k CTs sourced from three health systems in the US and UK. They then had radiologists review the 415 studies that the AI system flagged for potentially missed pulmonary nodules, finding that it:

  • Caught 100 exams containing at least one missed nodule
  • Flagged 315 exams that didn’t feature nodules (false positives)
  • Achieved a 24% overall positive predictive value
  • Produced just a 1% false positive rate

The AI system’s combined ability to detect missed pulmonology nodules while “minimizing” radiologists’ re-reading labor was enough to make the authors optimistic about this type of AI. They specifically suggested that it could be a valuable addition to Quality Assurance programs, improving patient care while avoiding the healthcare and litigation costs that can come from missed findings.

The Takeaway

Watson Health’s new AI system adds to incidental AI’s growing momentum, joining a number of research and clinical-stage solutions that emerged in the last two years. However, this system’s ability to cross-reference radiology report text and apparent ability to minimize false positives are relatively unique. 

Even if most incidental AI tools aren’t ready for everyday clinical use, and their potential to increase re-read labor might be alarming to some rads, these solutions’ ability to catch earlier stage diseases and minimize the impact of diagnostic “misses” could earn the attention of a wide range of healthcare stakeholders going forward.

IBM Sells Watson Health

IBM is selling most of its Watson Health division to private equity firm Francisco Partners, creating a new standalone healthcare entity and giving both companies (IBM and the former Watson Health) a much-needed fresh start. 

The Details – Francisco Partners will acquire Watson Health’s data and analytics assets (including imaging) in a deal that’s rumored to be worth around $1B and scheduled to close in Q2 2022. IBM is keeping its core Watson AI tech and will continue to support its non-Watson healthcare clients.

Francisco’s Plans – Francisco Partners seems optimistic about its new healthcare company, revealing plans to maintain the current Watson Health leadership team and help the company “realize its full potential.” That’s not always what happens with PE acquisitions, but Francisco Partners has a history of growing healthcare companies (e.g. Availity, Capsule, GoodRx, Landmark Health) and there are a lot of upsides to Watson Health (good products, smart people, strong client list, a bargain M&A multiple, seems ideal for splitting up).

A Necessary Split – Like most Watson Health stories published over the last few years, news coverage of this acquisition overwhelmingly focused on Watson Health’s historical challenges. However, that approach seems lazy (or at least unoriginal) and misses the point that this split should be good news for both parties. IBM now has another $1B that it can use towards its prioritized hybrid cloud and AI platform strategy, and the new Watson Health company can return to growth mode after several years of declining corporate support.

Imaging Impact – IBM and Francisco Partners’ announcements didn’t place much focus on Watson Health’s imaging business, but it seems like the imaging group will also benefit from Francisco Partners’ increased support and by distancing itself from a brand that’s lost its shine. Even losing the core Watson AI tech should be ok, given that the Merge PACS team has increasingly shifted to a partner-focused AI strategy. That said, this acquisition’s true imaging impact will be determined by where the imaging group lands if/when Francisco Partners decides to eventually split up and sell Watson Health’s various units.

The Takeaway – The IBM Watson Health story is a solid reminder that expanding into healthcare is exceptionally hard, and it’s even harder when you wrap exaggerated marketing around early-stage technology and high-multiple acquisitions. Still, there’s plenty of value within the former Watson Health business, which now has an opportunity to show that value.

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-- The Imaging Wire team