Jennifer Sun, MD: Why Ophthalmology Needs Machine Learning

Burden of disease is growing, and ophthalmology's people power may not be able to keep up. Healthcare must turn to machine learning to fill the gap.

There are now more than 100 million Americans with diabetes or prediabetes, according to a recent estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s nearly a third of the US population. Worldwide, about 8.3% of adults, or some 415 million people, are affected by the condition.

For ophthalmologists, rising global incidence of diabetes means more cases of diabetic eye conditions like diabetic retinopathy (DR) and diabetic macular edema (DME). In turn, physicians and health systems must prepare to tackle unprecedented levels of ophthalmic disease burden among the growing number of patients with diabetes.

That means they’re going to need some help. But there are big challenges standing in the way—physician burnout continues to plague providers and physician shortages loom large across healthcare. So what can exhausted health systems do to meet the needs of their chronically ill patients?

For Jennifer Sun, MD, associate professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School, the answer may soon come from the world of healthcare information and technology (IT). Big data, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning carry the potential to profoundly improve efficiencies in a notoriously inefficient US healthcare system, all while giving health systems a serious leg up when it comes to treating chronic disease.

In certain cases, the tools of the health IT world are already starting to move the needle. The FDA recently approved marketing for the first AI device that can screen for DR. Several other automated machine learning diagnostic mechanisms are in the works, including one that can identify DR from retinal images with 97% accuracy, and another that can predict DR progression.

The ideals of healthcare IT haven’t been realized—at least not yet. There’s plenty of work left to do, and if recent history is any indication, that work is only going to increase as time goes on. Still, there’s lots to be hopeful about.

Sun sat with our sister publication MD Magazine to talk about healthcare IT’s potential to bridge the gap between efficient care and those who need it at the annual meeting of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) in Honolulu, Hawaii.