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India’s Bid To Harness AI For Healthcare

In the first week of March, two data scientists from Bengaluru– Monish Kaul and Nikhil S Narayan made their way to Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province in central China. At the World Artificial Intelligence Symposium where mainly researchers from China and southeast asia presented papers, full time startup employees Kaul and Narayan were unlikely emissaries.

Their paper titled “Siamese Bayesian Networks for AI Based Differential Diagnosis,” proposed a new method to improve the accuracy of artificial intelligence based diagnosis. The authors show that their algorithm has a 40% improvement over manual differential diagnosis of disorders and a 10% improvement over classical artificial intelligence based approaches for diagnosis.

Differential diagnosis the process of differentiating between two or more conditions which share similar signs or symptoms.

The symposium paper didn’t make waves like a recent study from China published in Nature Medicine that used nearly 101 million data points from electronic health records of over 1.3 million patients and showed that artificial intelligence systems can diagnose common childhood diseases better than some doctors. Nevertheless, it marks the beginning of a trend which at its best will ease the load on India’s overburdened healthcare system in an optimists version of the future.

“Now we have close to 1200 diseases trained in the system to take to a conclusion in excess of 85% accuracy diagnosis,” says Ajit Narayanan, the third author of the paper and the chief technology officer of mFine, a Bengaluru headquartered healthcare startup.

For India, a country with over 1.3 billion people and an acute shortage of doctors, artificial intelligence can’t be just a novelty but is likely to prove essential. A discussion paper floated by Indian government’s Niti Aayog places healthcare among one of the focus areas for AI intervention.

India produces only about 50,000 doctors every year–Not nearly enough to get to minimum standards. To get to the WHO recommended minimum of a doctor patient ratio of 1:1000, India will need 2.3 million doctors by 2030. Early experiments by at least a dozen  healthcare startups hold some answers to push healthcare in India into the future and ease the burden on India’s healthcare system.

mFine, for instance, has already served users from 800 towns without a physical center. “Many doctors don’t want to practise in rural areas. But smartphones have already reached every part of the country,” says Dr Raja Indana who leads a team of more than 40 doctors at mFine.The company currently handles over 15,000 cases a month (along with doctors on its platform). That’s approximately the size of Manipal Hospital, one of the largest physical hospitals in Bangalore.

“There are literally far and few doctors in India. The technology allows you to remove barriers of distance and time. Anyone with a smartphone can connect to a doctor,” says Prasad Kompalli, CEO & co-founder of mFine.

“How many cardiologists are in India? 8000. How many gynecologists? 30,000? Are we going to train lakhs more in the next five years? Ain’t gonna happen…Technology is the only way we can solve this,” says Amit Somani, an investor in mFine. Somani’s faith in technology is cemented by some personal experiences as well. Only a week before our meeting, he avoided taking his 13-year old son to a hospital by consulting a doctor using the mFine app.

mFine, founded by former Myntra co-founder Ashutosh Lavania and entrepreneur Prasad Kompalli, currently has over 375 doctors who specialise in 20 different areas such as Gynaecology and Dermatology and serves five cities.

Last year FactorDaily had written about how mFine uses bots to converse and collect basic details and symptoms before handing over a case to a doctor, saving time and making room for more consultations. mFine is now working on deploying solutions that will take machine led diagnosis one step deeper than patient interactions.

“We’re trying to give our virtual doctor abilities to see and hear,” says Narayanan, formerly the chief technology officer at Myntra. Doctors will tell you that in the process of diagnosis, it is not only important to get answers from patients but also to see and hear them as to zero in on a diagnosis. For instance, by listening to someone cough, experienced doctors can tell if the patient has an upper respiratory tract infection or not.

Reading lab results and other images are important for doctors to further diagnose patients. “If a user coughs into the phone, we should be able to tell using our machine learning algorithms if it is an upper respiratory tract infection or not,” says Narayanan. “For paediatrics, we are looking at crying sounds and tell by listening to the sound of the wail,” he says. The virtual doctor can now also read results of blood tests.

mFine is not the only company using AI to address the healthcare market. Artificial intelligence has the potential to transform healthcare in many ways. Kris Gopalakrishnan, the co-founder of Infosys and an active investor in the space says, “from analysing huge amounts of patient data, searching past histories for treatment options and efficacies, replacing specialists like radiologists, helping people (healthy people) to lead a better life with IoT devices like digital watch,” there could be many applications for AI technologies.

Since 2013, about $65 million has been raised by a dozen odd companies in the healthcare space that use AI, according to data from Tracxn. As we had written earlier, notable AI-driven healthcare startups from India include Qure.ai, which is exploring the medical imaging space; Sigtuple in pathology; CureSkin in dermatology solutions; Niramai for breast cancer detection; and Tricog Health whose cloud-connected ECG devices are used to detect heart complications. Large companies such as Google and Microsoft have also conducted pilots with hospital chains in India. Practo, an appointment booking app for patients has also been working on automating patient interactions with the use of AI. – Factor Daily