Industry Voices—Healthcare industries are underinvesting in AI patenting

Hong Kong's IT jobs market is expected to remain robust in 2019 (Image popba / iStockPhoto)
Healthcare companies should look closely at their analytics platforms to ensure they are adequately protecting their R&D. (popba/iStockPhoto)

The growth of artificial intelligence in the healthcare industry has been astounding. 

Each day, we see new articles about AI-related advances in medical imaging, diagnosis, and health informatics. Health service providers are finding more and more ways to match patients with treatment options, improve the detection of disease, and analyze patients’ data to give them more insight into their individual health profiles. 

AI is also used to improve clinical payment structures, develop treatment plans, and optimize coordination between clinical staff.

The U.S. patent system—a key player in protecting R&D innovation—is also experiencing tremendous growth, with patent filings for AI-related technologies trending upward. But despite the vast number of practical applications AI provides to the healthcare industry, health-related entities are virtually absent from the AI-patent innovator list. Below is a chart of the top 20 companies that were granted patents covering artificial intelligence technologies in 2017 (the last full year of data we currently have available).

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The following chart shows the top 20 companies that filed patent applications covering artificial intelligence technologies in 2016. (Because patent filings do not publish until 18 months after they are filed, 2016 is the most recent year for which we have full data.)

Traditional big tech companies top these lists, with a strong showing by the automotive sector. But where are the healthcare companies?

Yes, IBM takes the lead role protecting AI/ML innovation, which includes its hefty Watson Health push. But with all the industry investment in healthcare technology, why are traditional healthcare companies not represented in the AI patenting landscape? One reason may be that healthcare companies are not creating the core AI themselves but are instead using off-the-shelf AI solutions to analyze their data and implement their workflows.

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But as soon as companies start adapting those off-the-shelf solutions to work for their own ends, innovative concepts may be introduced that themselves warrant patent protection—particularly if they result in a competitive edge in the marketplace.


Another reason may be that the return on investment for patenting software innovation has been low the past few years—especially for diagnostics and healthcare analytics, where treatment of algorithmic data analysis has been classified as a type of innovation that is “not eligible” for patenting. This tide seems to be turning, however.

On Jan. 7, 2019, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued new guidance that should bring more consistency to the examination of software- and IT-related patent applications. Among other things, the guidance says that “practical applications” of ideas should be eligible. Of course, the technology must still be new and nonobvious, but this is great news for innovators.

Healthcare companies should look closely at their analytics platforms to ensure they are adequately protecting their R&D and stake their claim in the marketplace alongside the patent-active tech companies before it is too late to catch up to the competition.