‘Lifesaving for me’: Machine uses AI to detect skin cancer

PITTSBURGH — A machine inside a local hospital uses artificial intelligence to detect skin cancer. It has 92 cameras.

One patient we spoke with said that at first, she was hesitant. But now she’s grateful and believes AI saved her life.

“I’m fair-skinned with a lot of moles,” said Katrina Barger.

Katrina Barger started going to a dermatologist in middle school.

“Always had precancerous moles but never anything they said that I needed to worry about,” said Barger.

At 26, she noticed a spot on her knee, which turned out to be melanoma. Because of her history, she sees a dermatologist every three months. But back in the Fall, Barger was the first person to use a new whole-body imaging system at West Penn Hospital. It’s one of only 15 devices in the country.

“The Vectra found that I have 745 moles on my body so it can be hard for any human to keep track of that me or my doctors,” said Barger.

The device also found a cancerous spot that wasn’t on Barger’s or her doctor’s radar.

“It’s hard to say how long that one would have gone undetected if the Vectra hadn’t found it,” said Barger.

Allegheny Health Network says it’s been using artificial intelligence for more than five years in the world of radiology, imaging and predicting sepsis. They’re even testing out a system that could alert hospital staff before a patient falls. Most of it is just in the background.

“You may see it in the periphery, but our hope is that really it’s more time with your care team,” said Allegheny Health Network Chief Digital Information Officer Dr. Ashis Barad. “Our hopes at AHN is a lot of the times we’re using AI is invisible to the patient. What I mean by that is that we’re never going to lose sight that the magic happens between a doctor, a nurse, a care team and the patient. It’s human care.”

Dr. Ashis Barad says they’re letting AI do mundane tasks such as monitoring supply and record keeping.

“That is revolutionary because that saves hours a day for those clinicians either in the evening or it’s time they were spending having their back to you,” said Barad. “I think the patient experience is going to improve. They shouldn’t feel it, but they’ll see it in action but in the periphery. We don’t want AI to diagnose the patient. We know as humans that we’re complex, and there’s a lot of factors so we really want what we call a human in the loop. So if AI gives suggestions, great. We get suggestions all the time.”

UPMC is thinking about AI in a very similar way. The hospital system also developed a smartphone app that diagnosis ear infections, and currently uses AI to detect strokes, diabetic retinopathy and prostate cancer.

“We haven’t gotten to the point where we’ve seen a high utilization of clinical artificial intelligence in other diagnostic areas,” said UPMC Chief Medical Information Officer Dr. Rob Bart. “I do believe that will be coming.”

Dr. Rob Bart expects AI to really grow in the clinical setting over the next three to five years.

“I, for one, am not concerned that my job will be replaced by artificial intelligence,” said Bart. “But what I will say, whether it’s myself or other physicians, I think that the physician who incorporates artificial intelligence as part of their practice part of how they think about delivering care they will be better enabled to deliver high-quality care than the physician in the future who does not incorporate artificial intelligence into their care practice. So I think that we will see more and more of that coming, and I think we’re on the early part of it as it relates to the clinical utilization. I do think that as we think about the medical decision-making pieces so that cognitive processes and medical decision-making I do think that we’ll be seeing much more incorporation of artificial intelligence, but it will be to augment the intelligence and process of the clinician not necessarily to replace the clinician.”

Bart says this is the time that clinicians need to be learning more about AI and understanding how they can incorporate it.

“As you know stroke is a risk to the brain, and the brain is one part of the body where seconds and minutes does matter to make a decision for an intervention,” said Bart. “Leveraging these AI tools has enabled our neurologists and neurosurgeons and emergency department physicians in the management of acute strokes to render decisions and therefore interventions in a much more timely manner. So that’s I would say is a very successful use case of where artificial intelligence has really helped us improve the outcome of our patient care.”

It’s already gained Barger’s trust.

“AI in the health field has already been lifesaving for me,” said Barger.

Insurance doesn’t cover the Vectra scan.

It’s self-pay and is recommended yearly. It costs $250.

“That’s like putting a price on my life,” said Barger. “Is it worth $250? For sure.”

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