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Machine Learning Takes Flight: How a Robot is Outperforming Doctors in China


A Chinese company known as Ping An Good Doctor is making headlines after unveiling the AskBob Doctor, an artificially intelligent robot that uses patient data to make diagnoses in a matter of seconds. In a head-to-head matchup with human doctors where providers analyzed the records of nine cardiovascular patients, AskBob seems to have outperformed the human doctors by exceeding their expertise.

We’re still a long way from replacing doctors with machines, but this new development is changing the way experts think about artificial intelligence in medicine.

Meet AskBob Doctor

According to Ping An Good Doctor, the robot was developed by more than 20 engineers. It uses the company’s signature Smart Medical Knowledge Graph, which combines millions of medical concepts, medical correlations, and evidence in a centralized knowledge base that can be used across the healthcare industry.

It works sort of like a chatbot. Users can upload medical and patient information. The machine can then ask questions and request additional information. One one level, the machine is meant to simplify the data collection process, so providers can use algorithms to analyze complex medical information instead of trying to pull data together from different locations.

The company says doctors tend to spend 15 to 20 hours per week examining information that could be better consolidated. The AskBob Doctor is expected to save about 50% of doctors’ time in researching prescription information.

There are two versions of the platform, Basic and Professional. The Basic version is for primary health care practitioners and village doctors, and the Professional version is for specialists and other practitioners in large hospitals.

Doctor vs. Machine

To unveil the machine, Ping An Good Doctor, a leading one-stop healthcare ecosystem platform in China that includes online medical services, organized a competition in collaboration with the Great Wall International Congress of Cardiology 2020, the Asian Heart Society Congress 2020, and the National Clinical Research Center of Cardiovascular Diseases.

Several local hospitals sent trained cardiovascular residents to participate in the competition. The competition provided nine medical cases for the providers and AskBob to analyze. A Ping An Good Doctor employee operated the machine, while the residents were split into groups of three. The cases focused on complex medical issues, including atrial fibrillation, coronary heart disease, hypertension, and hyperlipidemia, as well as disease management, treatment, and lifestyle recommendations.

The residents and AskBob were provided the same medical records. Both parties could then request additional informational, previous examinations and test results. Each party then proposed a treatment solution, including medicine prescriptions, lifestyle advice, and follow-up procedures.

Three medical experts reviewed the results to check for medical accuracy. These judges eventually scored the participants based on their ability to diagnose and treat the patient. The residents received a score of 93.9 points, while AskBob earned 97.7 points.

This means that AskBob caught something that the residents missed in their evaluation of the patient. AskBob was also able to render a diagnosis in just one to five seconds, while the doctors needed between 10 to 15 minutes to complete their work.

When operating the robot, all the Ping An Good Doctor employee had to do was push a series of buttons, including “Read Medical Records”, “Require Extra Information of Disease History and Medical Inspection” and “Medical Treatment Solutions”.

Xie Guotong, Ping An’s Chief Healthcare Scientist, was thrilled with the results. Commenting on the company’s recent success, he said:

“With the advent of big data, healthcare knowledge and data are increasing at an unprecedented pace. AskBob Doctor can deliver information to doctors instantly about patients’ examinations, test results and medication during the diagnosis process. Not only that, it can provide the latest research papers and popular research topics based on doctors’ expertise to facilitate their research efforts. AskBob Doctor is also able to consolidate the information of the latest meetings, journals and live streams related to doctors’ areas of interests to boost their learning.”

Xie Guotong believes it’s only a matter of time before platforms like AskBob become doctors’ preferred choice in the medical industry.

Professor Ma Changsheng, Director of Cardiology Department in Beijing Anzhen Hospital, thinks this will ultimately benefit patients and providers.

Commenting on the study, she said, “It is a great pleasure to witness how AI can be applied in cardiovascular diseases integrated management and reach the standard of care provided by resident doctors. This competition revealed that we are set to enter an era of AI in the future. AI can help everyone live a better life.”

As exciting as AskBob may seem, technology can exacerbate existing healthcare inequalities. Algorithms can discriminate against patients of color when relying on incomplete data. As AI becomes more integrated into the healthcare industry, high-income patients will be more likely to access these services than low-income patients. It’s not clear how platforms like AskBob will change the industry, but hopefully this technology benefits everyone equally.

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