A Google algorithm could help millions of Indian diabetics avoid a disease that leads to blindness.
Diabetic retinopathy is a condition that occurs among diabetics when high blood sugar levels damage the retinal blood vessels, leading to complete vision impairment over time.
While it is a threat to those who have lived with diabetes, it still can be detected early and treated if the patients are regularly screened. India is home to over 69 million diabetics as per the 2015 data. Out of this 45 per cent suffer from vision loss even before they are diagonised with diabetic retinopathy.
Specialist doctors are trained to diagnose the disease by analysing retinal photographs and looking for different types of lesions, such as microaneurysms or haemorrhages, that can indicate its severity, Quartz reported. The report further states that Google had last year announced that it had taught an image-recognition algorithm how to detect signs of diabetic retinopathy using a dataset of 128,000 retinal photographs. In subsequent tests with other images, the algorithm managed to perform on par with a panel of ophthalmologists.
The project team has been working to validate the results with two hospital chains in India, Aravind Eye Care and Sankara Eye Hospital, and has recently completed initial clinical trials. Aravind even found the algorithm performing slightly better than its average ophthalmologist, Lily Peng, product manager at Google Research and a former nanoscientist and bioengineer, had said during a talk.
Google is in the early stages of figuring out pilot deployments for the technology in India. Machine learning has the capability of helping extend the reach of healthcare providers and bringing high quality care to everyone, especially rural and under-served communities where there is a shortage of experts, Quartz said while quoting Peng.
Importance in India:
In 2014, a study by the All India Ophthalmological Society found that diabetic retinopathy was detected in nearly 22% of its sample of over 6,200 diabetic patients across the country. More importantly, signs of the condition were detected even in patients who hadn't yet experienced any vision impairment, suggesting that early screening is the one thing that could make a big difference in avoiding blindness. Machine learning's true potential will only be realised when deployed in partnership with healthcare providers," Peng said.
As advanced as the diagnostic algorithm is, though, we're still a long way from technology replacing doctors, even as AI and virtual reality are being increasingly incorporated into India's healthcare sector. Peng notes that the successful adoption of the Google algorithm depends on healthcare providers who will need to adapt to handle an increase in patients as more people are diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy.