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Feb 28, 2019,  by Allianz Partners Business Insights

Paediatric illnesses: artificial intelligence capable of diagnosing just as well as doctors

A team of researchers has used a type of artificial intelligence to diagnose different illnesses in children, and the results of the tests showed that AI was capable of detecting signs of illnesses as well as, if not better, than human doctors. This was particularly the case in analyses of test results and notes taken by healthcare staff in advance. This technological breakthrough once again underlines the importance of AI in the health sector.

According to the results of a study published on Monday 11 February in the journal Nature Medicine, an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm has proved to be just as effective as paediatricians in diagnosing childhood illnesses. This is yet another incredible achievement for this particular technology which is in the process of revolutionising diagnostics and the role of the doctor.


Diagnosing both common and fatal illnesses


The programme was developed by Professor Kang Zhang and his team at the University of California at San Diego. The AI "trained itself" using data from over 1.3 million consultations of children carried out at the major paediatrics centre in Guangzhou, in the South of China.

The result was that the algorithm acquired a "very high level of relevance" in the diagnosis of common illnesses, with a score of 94% for flu, 93% for chicken pox and 97% for infectious foot-and-mouth disease. The AI was also very efficient when it came to diagnosing potentially fatal illnesses such as bacterial meningitis (93% success rate).


Assisting medical teams


"This is the first time that artificial intelligence has been able to imitate the clinical reasoning of a doctor [...] to establish a diagnosis," said a delighted Professor Kang. "Artificial intelligence is set to play an ever-increasing role in the future, and with enough training, I think that it will be capable of carrying out the majority of the functions of a doctor. It will not replace doctors [...] but instead will be able to help them do their work better, more quickly and at less expense."

The rapid progress made by this type of technology could be of particular "help for doctors in analysing large volume of data", "confirming the evaluation of diagnostics" and "helping the decision-making process when a diagnostic is uncertain", said Nature Medicine in a press release.


AI – set to become an indispensable part of the health sector


For a number of years now, various studies have concluded that AI is either equally or more efficient than humans and traditional examinations for certain types of diagnostics. In January 2019, a study published by the journal of the National Cancer Institute demonstrated that an algorithm had managed to detect precancerous cells in 91% of cases based on images of the cervix. By way of comparison, the success rate was just 69% for a human expert and 71% for conventional examinations (for example a cervical smear).

The programme developed by Professor Kang and his team has an added innovation compared with previous studies, namely the use of natural language processing (NLP). The machine is capable of analysing spontaneous speech where others can only work with predefined words and phrases. The AI was thus able to synthesise various elements of medical data including blood tests and x-rays and also descriptions of symptoms, the medical history of the patient and notes written by the doctor.


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