AI software is being rolled out to 20 GP clinics in Western Australia to screen patients for diabetic retinopathy.
The debilitating condition affects one in three diabetic people and can lead to blindness if untreated, but at present can only be identified by specialists.
The CSIRO developed software, which has been licenced to US company TeleMedC, has recently completed a successful first trial, and was found to be as effective as an ophthalmologist in detecting signs of diabetic retinopathy and grading its severity.
During the trial – held at the GP Superclinic at Midland Railway Workshops in Perth – GPs screened 187 diabetic patients, taking high resolution images of their eyes, which were then run through the software.
Dubbed ‘Dr Grader’ by researchers, the software also analyses ophthalmologists’ grading data to improve its ability to detect various signs of the disease.
“Patients at risk of this condition would usually be referred to a specialist for screening, waiting six weeks or more – now it can potentially be done in a single 30-minute visit to a GP,” said CSIRO’s Professor Yogi Kanagasingam, the software’s creator and trial co-lead.
GPs without specialist knowledge are able to easily screen patients, and refer them to an ophthalmologist for further investigation, prioritised by the severity of symptoms.
A retina scan
“Early detection and intervention for diabetic retinopathy is key, and this new tool is the first step to help GPs prioritise patients for treatment. It could help avoid unnecessary referrals to public hospitals, potentially reduce waiting periods for patients and enable ophthalmologists to focus on patients needing treatment and surgery,” he added.
The financial impact of diabetes – which affects 1.7 million Australians – on the economy is estimated to cost up to $14 billion a year, Kanagasingam said.
The Minister for Industry Innovation and Science Arthur Sinodinos welcomed the Dr Grader technology’s potential to change lives for the better.
“This advancement is a great example of the essential role science plays in finding innovative ways to help Australians live longer and happier lives,” he said. “With this world-first innovation, our scientists are at the forefront of using artificially intelligent technology to save people’s eyesight and make healthcare more accessible for all Australians.”
The trial was funded through an NHMRC grant and base funding from WA Health and CSIRO through the Australian Tele-health Research and Development Group.
‘Serial inventor’ Kanagasingam holds more than 36 medical patents and has developed a number of low-cost diagnostic technologies to detect conditions, ranging from those that directly threaten sight, through to stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.
In 2015 CSIRO ran trials of his Remote-i invention – a low cost eye screening system which captures high resolution images of a patient’s retina which are sent over satellite broadband to a city specialist for screening.
More than 1,000 patients from the Torres Strait Islands and southern Western Australia received a free GP appointment during the trial. The technology identified 68 patients who were at significant risk of going blind, including a number with macula edema.