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CSIRO tech may help prevent blindness in diabetics

Eye-screening technology developed by the CSIRO could make it easier to prevent the 1.7 million Australians who have diabetes from going blind.

The organisation said the technology enabled general practitioners to test for diabetic retinopathy, a condition that affects one in three diabetics and that could lead to blindness if not treated.

At the moment, only specialists can screen for the condition.

The technology was tested at the GP Superclinic at Midland Railway Workshops in Perth with financial support from an NHMRC grant and base funding from WA Health and the CSIRO through the Australian Tele-health Research and Development Group.

During the trial, GPs successfully screened 187 diabetic patients, using high-resolution images that were analysed for signs of diabetic retinopathy.

retinopathy

Dr Aly Khanbhai, one of the doctors involved in the trial, uses the new scanning technology on a patient.

Side by side, the images were also analysed by an ophthalmologist; the technology was found to be equally effective in detecting signs of diabetic retinopathy and grading its severity.

Professor Yogi Kanagasingam, creator of the technology and co-lead of the trial, said it could help people with diabetic retinopathy receive treatment faster.

“Patients at risk of this condition would usually be referred to a specialist for screening, waiting six weeks or more – now it can potentially be done in a single 30-minute visit to a GP,” he said.

“Early detection and intervention for diabetic retinopathy is key, and this new tool is the first step to help GPs prioritise patients for treatment.

“It could help avoid unnecessary referrals to public hospitals, potentially reduce waiting periods for patients and enable ophthalmologists to focus on patients needing treatment and surgery.

"It could also help reduce the financial impact of diabetes on the Australian economy, which is estimated to cost up to $14 billion a year.”

Dr Amitha Preetham, director of the GP Superclinic at Midland Railway Workshops and trial co-leader, said industry-wide and multi-sector support for spread of medical technologies in primary care was important to improve health outcomes for Australian communities.

“It has been exciting to partner with CSIRO in utilising artificial intelligence in general practice to aid early diagnosis of diabetic retinopathy and early access to treatment, and potentially prevent blindness due to diabetes,” she said.

The grading software uses artificial intelligence — affectionately named Dr Grader — and was developed by CSIRO researchers. Ophthalmologists’ grading data was used by Dr Grader to improve its ability to detect various signs of diabetic retinopathy.

The software has been licensed by TeleMedC who will seek to make it commercially available. There are plans to install it at 20 GP clinics in Western Australia over the next few months, before expanding across the country.

Photos: courtesy CSIRO

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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.