Two big Boston institutions, General Electric Co. and Partners HealthCare, on Wednesday launched an ambitious initiative to employ artificial intelligence to improve medical care.
The decade-long effort will include clinical and technology experts at the Partners-owned Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s hospitals working alongside engineers and developers at GE. The companies will begin by building software to help doctors more quickly and accurately interpret medical images, but over time, they also want to create applications for genomics, population health, and other areas of medicine.
Artificial intelligence — also called machine learning technology — refers to computers that can sift through vast amounts of data to recognize patterns, becoming more accurate over time. Executives from GE, one of the nation’s largest corporations, and Partners, Massachusetts’ biggest nonprofit hospital network, said such technology has the potential to help care providers do their jobs more efficiently so that patients receive more accurate diagnoses and better treatments.
Without disclosing specifics, both companies said they will spend a significant amount on the initiative. And both stand to gain revenue if they’re successful in creating useful software programs that can be sold to hospitals around the globe.
GE, which moved its headquarters to Boston last year, is working to transform itself from an industrial company to into one that revolves around making software that powers equipment from MRI machines to jet engines.
“What we see as the future of health care [is] applying data and analytics and machine learning to create a rapidly different outcome for patients,” said John Flannery, chief executive of GE Healthcare, a business of 54,000 employees and more than $18 billion in annual revenue.
“The possibilities are vast and significant,” he added.
As medical data has gone digital, it has become easier to store and track, but it can also be overwhelming for doctors who must sift through electronic health records, lab results, and more every day.
“We are literally inundating our clinicians with data,” said Dr. David Torchiana, chief executive of Partners. “We have more and more information, and the information comes at our clinicians in a way that is almost unmanageable and at times can be overwhelming.”
Artificial intelligence can help make sense of that data, Torchiana said.
Other big companies, including IBM, whose Watson Health division is in Cambridge, are investing heavily in AI. IBM’s programs, for example, crunch data to help doctors prescribe treatments for cancer. Even Google and Amazon have developed technology that hospitals can use to comb through various data.
AI technology is part of the growing digital health field, which was about $61 billion globally in 2013 and is expected to grow to $233 billion in 2020, according to Deloitte. Massachusetts is home to hundreds of digital health companies, including startups.
At GE, digital health accounts for more than $1.5 billion in annual revenue, and executives said that is expected to increase at double-digit rates by 2020.
GE and Partners said they will develop an open platform that eventually can house hundreds of applications to help interpret medical data. They’re starting with radiology because that field, dealing with digital pictures from MRI and CT machines, more easily lends itself to computer analysis.
A computer can read hundreds or thousands of images and use algorithms to identify patterns that radiologists should pay attention to. The goal is for the computer to help them provide a better diagnosis, and then a better treatment plan for patients with stroke, cancer, and many other conditions.
“There’s hundreds if not thousands of applications throughout medicine,” said Dr. Keith Dreyer, chief data science officer in the radiology departments of Mass. General and Brigham.
The partnership between Partners’ hospitals and GE to work on artificial intelligence is the biggest of its kind, though GE is working with other hospitals, including Boston Children’s Hospital, to develop medical software.
Dr. John Halamka, chief information officer at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, said GE and and Partners are right to focus on radiology and other “high value” areas where machine learning can make a difference.
“It’s pattern recognition based on previous experience,” Halamka said. “Think of it as a safety net, a focus, a mechanism for ensuring you don’t miss bad things.”
Beth Israel Deaconess is using technology from Amazon to run pilot programs in machine learning, including one in which a computer quickly reads information from paper forms, minimizing some of the busy work for staff.
GE’s health care business is based in Chicago and has operations throughout the world, but the company’s decision to move its corporate headquarters to Boston helped seal the new partnership with Partners, executives from both companies said.
“This is a concrete manifestation of exactly the reason we moved to Boston,” said Flannery, the GE Healthcare CEO. “This is exactly the idea we had in mind, which is to be in the middle of the action, in the flow of ideas, with the world’s best clinical partners [and] universities.”