Australian scientists have developed an artificial intelligence-driven technology that could make it easier to prevent blindness in the 1.7 million Australians with diabetes.
Patients usually wait up to six weeks for a specialist to screen them for diabetic eye disease. But with this new CSIRO-developed eye-screening technology, patients can be screened by their regular doctor instead, then referred to a specialist for treatment if needed.
The Perth trial found GPs using the technology could detect the eye condition as effectively as a specialist.
The eye-screening technology, developed by CSIRO, enables GPs to test diabetic patients for diabetic retinopathy - a condition affecting one in three diabetic people that can lead to blindness if untreated.
The Minister for Industry Innovation and Science Arthur Sinodinos said the technology could help 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," Minister Sinodinos said.
"With this world-first innovation, our scientists are at the forefront of using artificially intelligenttechnology to save people's eyesight and make healthcare more accessible for all Australians."
The technology's creator and trial co-lead, CSIRO's Professor Yogi Kanagasingam, said the innovation could help people with diabetic retinopathy receive treatment faster.
"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," he said.
The trial, held at the GP Superclinic at Midland Railway Workshops in Perth, was funded through an NHMRC grant and base funding from WA Health and CSIRO through the Australian Tele-health Research and Development Group.
During the trial, GPs successfully screened 187 diabetic patients, taking high resolution images of their eyes, which were then analysed by the technology for signs of diabetic retinopathy. Importantly, as a basis for comparison the images were also analysed by an ophthalmologist, and the technology was found to be as effective as the specialist in detecting signs of diabetic retinopathy and grading its severity.
"Early detection and intervention for diabetic retinopathy is key, and this new tool is the first step to help GPs prioritise patients for treatment," Professor Kanagasingam said.
"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. It could also help reduce the financial impact of diabetes on the Australian economy, which is estimated to cost up to $14 billion a year."
Director of the GP Superclinic at Midland Railway Workshops, and trial co-leader Dr Amitha Preetham said industry-wide and multi-sector support for the uptake of medical technologies in primary care is an important step in improving health outcomes for our communities.
The artificially intelligent grading software, affectionately named Dr Grader, was developed by researchers at CSIRO. By analysing ophthalmologists' grading data, Dr Grader was able to improve its ability to detect various signs of the disease in patients.
Using the technology, GPs will be able to screen patients for signs of the condition and its severity, and refer them to an ophthalmologist for further investigation, prioritised by the severity of their symptoms.
The software has been licenced by TeleMedC, who are looking to make the technology commercially available – with plans to install it at a further 20 GP clinics in Western Australia over the next few months, before expanding across Australia.