AI promising as a physician assistant
performance of experienced physicians. It was more than 90 percent accurate at diagnosing asthma; the accuracy of physicians in the study ranged from 80 to 94 percent.
In diagnosing gastrointestinal disease, the system was 87 percent accurate, compared with the physicians’ accuracy of 82 to 90 percent.
Able to recognize patterns in data that humans could never identify on their own, neural networks can be enormously powerful in the right situation. But even experts have difficulty understanding why such networks make particular decisions and how they teach themselves.
As a result, extensive testing is needed to reassure both doctors and patients that these systems are reliable.
Experts said extensive clinical trials are now needed for Zhang’s system, given the difficulty of interpreting decisions made by neural networks.
“Medicine is a slow-moving field,” said Ben Shickel, a researcher at the University of Florida who specializes in the use of deep learning for health care. “No one is just going to deploy one of these techniques without rigorous testing that shows exactly what is going on.”
It could be years before deeplearning systems are deployed in emergency rooms and clinics. But some are closer to real-world use: Google is now running clinical trials of its eye-scan system at two hospitals in southern India.
Deep-learning diagnostic tools are more likely to flourish in countries outside the United States, Zhang said. Automated screening systems may be particularly useful in places where doctors are scarce, including in India and China.
The system built by Zhang and his colleagues benefited from the large scale of the data set gathered from the hospital in Guangzhou. Similar data sets from U.S. hospitals are typically smaller, both because the average hospital is smaller and because regulations make it difficult to pool data from multiple facilities.
Zhang said he and his colleagues were careful to protect patients’ privacy in the new study. But he acknowledged that researchers in China may have an advantage when it comes to collecting and analyzing this kind of data.
“The sheer size of the population – the sheer size of the data – is a big difference,” he said.
Organizations are building systems that analyze health records to flag conditions like osteoporosis, diabetes, hypertension and heart failure.