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Artificial Intelligence: Will it replace ophthalmologists?

Ophthalmology’s lead role in the medical use of artificial intelligence (AI) and its future role in the profession were among the key talking points at the recently concluded RANZCO Scientific Congress.

Hundreds of ophthalmologists from Australia and overseas descended on the International Convention Centre Sydney for the 51st annual conference where they discussed the latest innovations, techniques and advances in eye health care

The five-day program, which ended yesterday, featured the latest medical devices, as well as presentations on glaucoma, cataract, cornea, uveitis and surgical retina. AI’s future role in eyecare was also the focus of a well-attended discussion by prominent ophthalmic figures.

Associate Professor and deputy director of the Centre for Eye Research Australia Peter van Wijngaarden said the sector was among the leading medical fields in terms of AI adoption.

“Rapid advances in the development of artificial intelligence has the potential to change the landscape of global eye health,” he said.

“The beginning of this revolution was marked recently by the US Food and Drug Administration approval of an AI system for the detection of eye disease from retinal photographs. This is noteworthy as it is the first approval of the application of AI in the autonomous diagnosis of disease in any field of medicine.”

According to RANZCO, AI systems are already achieving incredible results in a range of trials and, in some instances, even performing as well as sub-specialist experts in ophthalmology.

The college expects AI in ophthalmology to improve the precision of diagnosis, increase screening of diseases and aid in cutting the costs of healthcare, allowing ophthalmologists to focus on delivering care to patients.

Professor Tien Yin Wong, medical director of the Singapore National Eye Centre and Singapore Eye Research Institute board chairman said AI, especially deep learning, had attracted significant interest from healthcare systems in recent years.

“In particular, we have seen AI have substantial promise for diabetic retina screening in remote areas without ophthalmologists,” he said.

Van Wijngaarden also discussed whether clinicians and consumers were ready for the use of this AI in healthcare.

“The extent to which the work tasks of an ophthalmologist can be carried out by AI is a question of both advances in technology and the willingness of doctors and patients to adopt AI in healthcare,” he said.

“If AI is used in the clinic it should complement and enhance human capabilities, removing the more mundane work tasks and providing safeguards to reduce error.”

He added: “If this is done well AI could improve outcomes for patients and make doctors more efficient, freeing up time for the human interaction between doctor and patient that has been the cornerstone of medicine for millennia.”