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AI improves prognosis for rural healthcare

China Daily | Updated: 2019-07-10 09:37
Doctors at a township hospital in Zhuji, Zhejiang province, use a 5G system to discuss their diagnosis with experts at the Zhuji Central Hospital on June 28.[Photo/Xinhua]

In November, a patient in Hefei, Anhui province, went to a community health center and was diagnosed with heart arrhythmia by doctor He Qi.

But He strongly suggested the patient undergo a coronary angiography at a big hospital as his artificial intelligence medical assistant gave a different diagnosis.

The result showed that the AI assistant was correct. The patient was actually suffering from coronary heart disease.

The AI medical assistant, launched in March last year by Chinese AI firm iFlytek, is becoming an important partner for grassroots doctors making diagnoses in rural China.

With a strong learning capability, the AI system has mastered knowledge contained in 53 medical textbooks and 400,000 authoritative articles of medical literature. In August 2017, it passed the written test of the national qualification exam for clinical practitioners with excellent results that were better than 95 percent of the 530,000 candidates. It also continues to update itself with the latest medical knowledge.

"The application of AI medical assistants has significantly shortened the time and improved the success rate for grassroots doctors making diagnoses," He said.

Tao Xiaodong, CEO of iFlyHealth, said after being used in four counties and a district in Anhui, the AI medical assistant has made more than 1.5 million auxiliary diagnoses.

"It can help confirm more than 900 diseases at health centers at the grassroots level with an accuracy rate of 97 percent," Tao said.

As of March this year, the AI assistant has been used in almost 1,200 clinics and health centers across the country.

Technology has been reshaping the life of rural Chinese in many ways.

The diagnosis and treatment levels of clinics and health centers in rural China, especially at and below county level, have long been relatively inferior due to a lack of experienced doctors and advanced equipment. Patients, especially critically ill ones, often have to be transferred to higher-level hospitals.

As China deepens reform of its medical and healthcare system, a big challenge is to develop a hierarchical medical system to allow patients to have their first diagnoses done at the grassroots level. Technology can now help this become a reality.

After being X-rayed, Long Shixiang, 62, was relieved to hear that her broken bone had healed.

A native of Hongtang town in Yichun, Jiangxi province, she was able to receive all her medical treatment at her doorstep.

"It saved me a lot of money and trouble," said Long, who has to stay at home to take care of two granddaughters as both her son and daughter-in-law work out of town.

Just two years ago, it was impossible to get an X-ray at the local health center due to a lack of equipment and qualified medical practitioners.

"The equipment was too outdated to take clear X-rays and there were no doctors capable of giving professional diagnostic reports," said Fu Chunping, head of the local health center. "The patients had to go to the superior hospitals for treatment."

Chen Junkun, chief medical officer of JF Healthcare said: "X-rays play a major role in clinical diagnoses of many diseases, including fractures and various lung and heart diseases. It also is cost-effective."

The local government purchased X-ray machines for 27 health clinics in the district in 2017, but doctors were still nowhere to be found until technology came to help.

By collaborating with JF Healthcare, a company that specializes in providing online medical services with AI and remote interconnection technology, patients can receive their X-ray reports within 10 minutes. By uploading the X-ray film to a cloud platform, an AI system will conduct an auxiliary diagnosis and the X-ray will later be reviewed by qualified practitioners who will make judgments in 10 minutes.

JF Healthcare has now partnered with 1,019 grassroots hospitals in 12 provinces and autonomous regions including Jiangxi, Xinjiang, Hubei, Hebei, Guangxi and Yunnan. More than 20 million residents in rural areas can take advantage of the service.

By reading the diagnostic reports that are sent back, doctors at the grassroots level can also improve their treatment levels.

"Telemedicine is a new trend to solve the problem of poor access to medical services in rural China, and it is encouraged," said Liu Xiaohui, from Jiangxi province's Health Commission.

"The medical treatment at the grassroots level will be quickly improved and the residents in rural areas can enjoy better medical services with the help of AI and other advanced technology."

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