Does health care hold the key to IBM's market comeback?

January 24, 2018
by Thomas Dworetzky, Contributing Reporter
IBM ruled the world of big computing in the 1980s.

But it gave away the software side of personal computers to Microsoft by packaging their OS with its desktop PCs.

Then it missed the Internet boat that overtook “big iron” as the growth sector of information technology.

The company paid a heavy price in the stock market for its missteps. It has dropped from the largest single component of the S&P 500 – at 6.4 percent of the index in 1985 – to a minuscule 0.6 percent at 35th place in the index, according to CNBC.

Investors have punished the company's stock, as well, compared to other tech leaders like Alphabet, Amazon and Microsoft.

IBM CEO Ginny Rometty has made an effort to move the company into hotter arenas, and that includes health care.

IBM is touting its blockchain technology, which has applications for digitally tracking things like food safety and financial transactions – and safe health information exchange.

It is also ramping up its cloud computing push, and spreading its Watson AI into numerous areas, notably health care, in keeping with the emerging trend – and demands – of crunching the deluge of data information.

"We're operating in thousands and thousands of transactions per second," IBM Senior Vice President Martin Schroeter recently told Jim Cramer. "That suits an enterprise world."

In health care specifically “Big Blue” has been at the forefront of modernizing information technology. Regarding that sector, Steve Tolle, vice president of global business development and strategy at Watson Health Imaging, spoke at the 2017 RSNA with HCB News about IBM's 2018 plans and products in the pipeline.

“We have a team that focuses on oncology so we have Watson for oncology and Watson for genomics,” he advised, adding that the company also has teams focusing on life sciences working with medical device companies to use AI to power their business innovation.

In addition, there are teams focusing on government, value-based care and population health, and especially imaging.

“We were one of the first companies in the market to truly offer health systems one place to manage all of their diagnostic imaging,” he advised.

The imaging push also has several products that are already or will shortly be available. One of these is IBM Watson Imaging Clinical Review, which was first released in 2017 and provides retrospective quality improvement by looking for discrepancies in the medical record.

IBM Watson Imaging Synopsis is a product slated for Q2 of 2018. It is designed to help radiologists navigate EMR/EHR information more efficiently, with relevant data rising to the top.

Another product, also slated for a 2018 release, is a “breast advisor,” according to Tolle, targeting a reduction of callbacks happening when women go for mammograms. The product is “using our algorithms to look at the current image, the prior image, calculate breast density, and we are showing the ability to prioritize a worklist based on potential pathology.”

One of the biggest challenges as AI moves into a hospital setting is the sheer number of companies and amount of money moving into the space. That surge of interest, Tolle believes, will favor IBM going forward.

The company has “pretty good experience in our enterprise imaging business, our consulting businesses, our platforms that we built as a business," noted Tolle. "So, I think you’ll see IBM and a couple of other companies act as consolidators in the business.”

Whether or not IBM's stake in health care will ultimately move the needle on its place among S&P 500 companies is something that only time will tell.