Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 February 2020

Arab Health: Doctors look to machines to help tackle pandemics

Spotting unusual hospital trends via artificial intelligence could limit virus spread

Deadly new bugs like the rapidly emerging coronavirus could be controlled with the help of artificial intelligence, doctors have said.

Health experts reacted to the outbreak of the virus on the first day of Arab Health, the region’s largest medical exhibition, in Dubai.

As the new coronavirus continues to spread from China, health professionals could turn to machine learning in the future to control similar viral outbreaks.

Weeks before there would have been people showing symptoms not necessarily recognised by doctors. Machine learning can reduce that lag time

Dr Jacques Kobersy, Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi

Dr Jacques Kobersy, chief of emergency medicine at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, said computers could prove a potent weapon against future pandemics by spotting patient trends earlier than humans.

“The coronavirus is new and scary but it has a low mortality rate when compared with other flu viruses we already know about,” he said.

“We only know when there is an epidemic like coronavirus when health authorities around the world start to get results from hospitals from a lot of unseasonal positive flu tests.

“Sometimes weeks before there would have been people showing symptoms that would not necessarily have been recognised as unusual by doctors.

“Machine learning can reduce that lag time by recognising a trend earlier.

“This would allow authorities to implement vaccination programmes and public health announcements earlier, limiting the spread of a pandemic instead of waiting a month before humans realise there could be an issue.

“This only works when these authorities work together to share information.”

The mutated virus, that is understood to have originated from an animal market in the city of Wuhan, appears to be strengthening.

Authorities have struggled to contain its spread to other cities and nations as infections continue to rise.

China's National Health Commission reported almost 2,000 people there are now infected, with 56 killed by the disease.

A handful of cases have been reported outside of the country, including in Thailand, Australia, the United States and France, with health authorities around the world racing to prevent a pandemic.

More than 50 people have been tested in the UK, although none returned a positive result.

Dr Kobersy said emergency departments were the perfect health ecosystem to test out new technology that could help contain such viruses.

“Emergency department (ED) clinicians are usually tech savvy and they see the whole breadth of injury and illness, from viruses, broken bones, to sepsis and heart attacks,” he said.

“The ED functions as a mini-hospital, where patients can get diagnosed via imaging, see a specialist and then get the treatment they need.

“It is a lot easier to test new technology like artificial intelligence and machine learning in a 40 bed emergency unit rather than a 400 bed hospital.

“It is helping us to understand what kind of patients will arrive in the ED and which ones need help the most.”

Updated: January 28, 2020 07:53 AM

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