If an advanced computer like IBM’s Watson can go on Jeopardy and win, can a computer start diagnosing patients better than a human doctor? The possibility could mean a reduction in a diagnostic error rate that the Institute of Medicine estimates may be as high as 15%.
The concept of how computers would fare against humans in diagnosing patients was the genesis of a recent research study from the American Medical Association that compared the accuracy of common online symptom checkers available on sites like WebMD to doctors. “Our thought was, if there is such a high level of inaccuracy, can computers do better?” says Ateev Mehrotra, MD, MPH, senior author of the study.
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The research revealed two things: doctors easily outperformed the machines, getting the correct diagnosis 72% of the time compared to 34% for the online symptom checkers, and that the diagnostic error rate for doctors was high.
“The doctors outperformed the symptom checkers; I expected that. By what magnitude was the only question,” says Mehrotra, who is also an associate professor at Harvard Medical School. But he was also surprised by the misdiagnosis rate for doctors, who missed the best diagnosis 28% of the time.
The online symptom checkers did far worse, but are they the best measure of what computers are capable of?
True artificial intelligence
The next step in computer-assisted diagnostics is harnessing the power of artificial intelligence (AI). Online symptom checkers are based on traditional computer programs and don’t utilize AI, which can greatly boost performance. Artificial intelligence differs from traditional computer software, which use data and a program to create an output, while AI uses data and outputs to create the program.
To differentiate the two, consider the question, “How many cats are sold in Pittsburgh?”
A traditional program would query a database of cat sales to return an answer. An AI-powered program might approximate how many cats are sold in Pittsburgh based on the number of cat food packages sold, says Ervin Sejdic, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who has worked on AI in healthcare for the last eight years.
Whether AI is ready to compete with human doctors on something as complex as a diagnosis is up for debate.
“I’m 100% certain that AI can do better than a doctor,” says Akli Adjaoute, Ph.D., CEO of Brighterion, a technology company specializing in artificial intelligence and machine learning.