A sort ofTo curb the spread of infectious diseases, the Gates Foundation is supporting efforts to use artificial intelligence to make it easier for healthcare providers in India and Nigeria to quickly diagnose certain diseases.
The funding will support New York-based VisualDx, a clinical decision-support company that began as a collection of images designed to allow non-dermatologists to better identify skin conditions. The company now offers machine learning-powered apps and software platforms to help healthcare professionals diagnose patients quickly and accurately.
“The public health needs of many rural and underserved areas are often left unreached by a shortage of providers and physicians and limited access to diagnostics, assistive technology, education and training,” said Wendemagegn Enbiale, global health information officer at VisualDx, in a release. Meet.” The company hopes their tool can help healthcare workers in places where there aren’t enough specialists.
The foundation previously provided financial support to VisualDx to develop an offline version of its tool in Botswana.
“While NTDs continue to affect more than 1.7 billion people worldwide, these diseases are preventable and treatable,” said Katie Irwin, Director of Neglected Tropical Diseases at the Gates Foundation.
In the new initiative, the company plans to work with partners in Nigeria and India to collect new images of neglected tropical diseases such as trachoma, hookworm and echinococcosis.
“It’s not enough to say to healthcare workers, ‘Well, here’s an app that shows you rare infectious diseases,'” said Art Papier, chief executive of Visual Dx and a professor of dermatology at the University of Rochester. Providers need to be able to quickly analyze whether the lesion is due to a common skin condition that causes no further harm, or whether it is a sign of a neglected tropical disease requiring a specific course of action.
Skin disorders can also show up more subtly in people with darker skin, which have historically been excluded from the medical literature. While the inflammation from the rash can easily appear red on white skin, increased red blood flow on brown skin doesn’t look red, but dark brown, Papier said. “It’s very, very important to show disease and what people with all skin types look like, because people with different skin tones look very, very different,” he said.
The software combines images of a patient’s skin with other factors, such as symptoms and whether the patient has traveled, to help make diagnostic recommendations. Importantly, Papier said AI doesn’t make decisions about diagnoses, which is difficult to start with in medicine.
“We’re talking about people’s lives. I mean, you can’t improvise,” he said. “You’re saying, ‘This is how the clinical decision support engine interprets all the clues, and these are the things you should be thinking about,’ but the human makes the final decision.”
If VisualDx is to have the system prove useful in the field, it will be critical to communicate the tool’s limitations to the healthcare providers who use it. Therefore, trust will also be built with the provider in the plan.
The company also needs to ensure its system is applicable to a variety of healthcare settings in different countries and works well with a range of patient populations, an issue that has long affected the performance of machine learning models in healthcare. The funding will also help VisualDx develop “country-specific logic” for the tool based on the prevalence of the disease in that region, Papier said.
Diagnosing these diseases does not address the more systemic problems that lead to their spread, such as the prevalence of mosquitoes and black flies, and lack of access to clean water and sanitation. Still, the ultimate hope is that better diagnostics could improve treatment rates for neglected tropical diseases — especially those that can be managed with drugs or other interventions.
As climate change intensifies, so do infectious diseases, including zoonotic and tropical diseases. “These diseases are spreading,” Papil said. “Whether it’s Zika or any other virus that we have, the only sensible thing to do is to be prepared for everything.”
This story has been updated with comment from the Gates Foundation.