AI programme can now spot diseases as well as world’s top consultants

AI programme can spot diseases as well as world’s top consultants

Eye care revolution: AI programme with 94% accuracy can now spot diseases that cause blindness (and it’s as good as the world’s top consultants)

  • Google’s DeepMind spots 50 eye conditions, including lead cause of blindness
  • The system has the potential to prevent irreversible sight loss via early treatment
  • Researchers hope it could be rolled-out across 30 UK hospitals within 3 years

Eye diseases that cause blindness in millions can now be rapidly detected by computer thanks to a ‘revolutionary’ breakthrough.

The new artificial intelligence system is just as good at detecting eye diseases as the very best consultants – with a 94 per cent accuracy.

The technique now promises to slash the time needed to be seen by a consultant from weeks to days.

Early results from tests of the scanning technology are so promising researchers believe it could be rolled out across 30 UK hospitals in less than three years.

The research is a collaboration between Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, UK-based Google DeepMind, UCL and Southampton University.

The new artificial intelligence system is just as good at detecting eye diseases as the very best consultants – with a 94 per cent accuracy

Dr Pearse Keane, a leading member of the team from Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust in London, said: ‘The number of eye scans we’re performing is growing at a pace much faster than human experts are able to interpret them.

‘There is a risk that this may cause delays in the diagnosis and treatment of sight-threatening diseases, which can be devastating for patients.

‘The AI technology we’re developing is designed to prioritise patients who need to be seen and treated urgently by a doctor or eye care professional.

‘If we can diagnose and treat eye conditions early, it gives us the best chance of saving people’s sight.’ 

Anonymous diagnostic data from almost 15,000 NHS patients was used to help the AI system learn how to spot 10 key features of eye disease from complex optical coherence tomography (OCT) retinal scans.

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An OCT scan uses light rather than X-rays or ultrasound to generate 3D images of the back of the eye, revealing abnormalities that may be signs of disease.

Findings published in the journal Nature Medicine showed that it was able to triage patients with more than 50 eye conditions correctly in more than 94 per cent of cases, matching the performance of leading experts from around the world.

The programme does not make a definitive diagnosis of its own. 

But on the basis of clinical signs such as holes in the macular, the central region of the retina, or blocked retinal veins, it can swiftly recommend which patients should be seen urgently by a specialist or simply placed under observation.


DeepMind Technologies is a British artificial intelligence company based in London.

It was acquired by Google for £400m ($625m) in January 2014.

The company says its exact goal is to ‘solve intelligence’, one of its recent achievements being the creation of a neural network that learns how to play video games.

The team is building algorithms that can learn in an attempt to create artificial intelligence.

Otherwise, though, the goals and methods of the company are not well-known – but it was apparently enough to convince Google to fork out a fairly sizable chunk of cash.

Under a five-year development programme the scientists now plan to press ahead with clinical trials.

Potentially, the system could be introduced in all 30 of Moorfields’ UK hospitals and clinics in as little as two-and-a-half years.

More than 285 million people worldwide live with some form of sight loss, including more than two million people in the UK.

In many cases blindness can be prevented by the early detection and treatment of eye diseases such as macular degeneration and glaucoma.

Mustafa Suleyman, co-founder and head of Applied AI at DeepMind Health, said: ‘We set up DeepMind Health because we believe artificial intelligence can help solve some of society’s biggest health challenges, like avoidable sight loss, which affects millions of people across the globe.

‘These incredibly exciting results take us one step closer to that goal and could, in time, transform the diagnosis, treatment and management of patients with sight-threatening eye conditions, not just at Moorfields, but around the world.’ 

The study was one of two demonstrating the effectiveness of AI screening of patients reported in Nature Medicine.

The other programme, developed in the US, was able to identify signs of brain damage caused by stroke, haemorrhage and hydrocephalus from CT (computed tomography) X-ray scans in just 1.2 seconds.

Lead researcher Dr Eric Oermann, from Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, said: ‘Such a triage system can alert physicians to a critical finding that may otherwise remain in a queue for minutes to hours.’ 

Derek Hill, Professor of Medical Imaging Science at University College Hospital, said: ‘These papers provide further evidence that artificial intelligence will soon be routinely supporting doctors in streamlining diagnosis and treatment of numerous illnesses.’ 

But Dr Larisa Soldatova, Reader in Data Science, Goldsmiths University of London, voiced concerns about the involvement of Google with patient medical data.

She said: ‘Deep Mind have been actively seeking to deploy their machine learning technology (deep learning, reinforcement learning) to medical problems for the NHS, mostly to focus on image analysis. 

‘However, as Deep Mind is owned by Google a company with a poor reputation for customer confidentiality, there are understandable deep concerns.’

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