IBM has announced that its Watson Health unit will gain the ability to manage medical imaging by bringing together Watson’s image analytics and cognitive capabilities with data and images obtained from Merge Healthcare’s medical imaging management platform.

According to the announcement, IBM plans to acquire Merge, a provider of medical image handling and processing, interoperability, and clinical systems designed to advance healthcare quality and efficiency, in an effort to improve access to medical images and help physicians make better patient care decisions. The deal marks IBM’s third major health-related acquisition, and its largest, since launching its Watson Health unit in April 2015, following Phytel (population health) and Explorys (cloud-based healthcare intelligence).  The closing of the transaction is subject to regulatory review, Merge shareholder approval, and other customary closing conditions, and is anticipated to occur later this year.

Merge’s technology platforms are used at more than 7,500 US healthcare sites, IBM reports, to manage a growing body of medical images. These organizations could use IBM’s Watson Health Cloud to surface new insights from a consolidated, patient-centric view of current and historical images, electronic health records, data from wearable devices and other related medical data, in a HIPAA-enabled environment. According to IBM, medical images are the largest and fastest-growing data source in the healthcare industry, accounting for at least 90% of all medical data today. They also present challenges that need to be addressed, including overwhelmingly high volumes, limited availability of tools to help clinicians analyze images, and difficulty integrating medical images with mainstream health information.

Under IBM’s plan, Merge’s clients could compare new medical images with a patient’s image history as well as populations of similar patients to detect changes and anomalies. Insights generated by Watson could then help healthcare providers in fields including radiology, cardiology, orthopedics, and ophthalmology to pursue more personalized approaches to diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring of patients.

For more information, visit the IBM Watson Health website. For more information about the acquisition and IBM’s strategic plan for improving cognitive image analytics, visit the blog post on the topic.