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Artificial intelligence system could improve survival for sepsis patients


Researchers supported by the NIHR have created an artificial intelligence system that could help identify the best way to treat patients with sepsis.

The system ‘learnt’ the best treatment strategy for a patient by analysing the records of about 100,000 hospital patients in intensive care units and every single doctor’s decisions affecting them.

The technology, developed by researchers at the NIHR Imperial Biomedical Research Centre, was then able predict the best treatment strategy for patients, and more reliably than human doctors.

The team behind the technology say the tool could be used to help doctors decide the best treatment strategy for patients. The researchers now hope to trial the system, called AI Clinician, in intensive care units in the UK.

Sepsis, also known as blood poisoning, is a potentially fatal complication of an infection, and kills around 44,000 every year in the UK. Sepsis can cause a drastic drop in blood pressure, which can leave organs deprived of blood flow and oxygen and ultimately lead to multiple organ failure and death.

To raise blood pressure and keep the heart pumping, doctors give extra fluids, usually in the form of a salt solution, as well as medication that tightens blood vessels and raises blood pressure, called vasopressors. However, there is much debate amongst clinicians about how much fluid to give and when to start vasopressors.

In this study, published in Nature Medicine, the research team created an artificial intelligence system that would assess a patient’s vital signs and recommend the best treatment approach.

The system analysed the medical records of 96,000 US patients with sepsis in intensive care units. Using a process called reinforcement learning – where computers learn how to make decisions and solve a problem – the AI Clinician went through each patient’s case and worked out the best strategy of keeping a patient alive.

The system then decided the best treatment strategy for each patient with sepsis. The results revealed that 98 per cent of the time, the AI system matched or was better than the human doctor's decision.

Dr Aldo Faisal, senior author from the Department of Bioengineering and the Department of Computing at Imperial, said: “Sepsis is one of the biggest killers in the UK - and claims six million lives worldwide - so we desperately need new tools at our disposal to help patients. At Imperial, we believe that AI for healthcare is the solution. Our new AI system was able to analyse a patient’s data – such as blood pressure and heart rate – and decide the best treatment strategy. We found that when the doctor’s treatment decision matched what the AI system recommended, they had a better chance of survival.”

Health Minister Lord O’Shaughnessy said: “Sepsis is a devastating condition which claims far too many lives in the UK. We need to be better at spotting the signs early and artificial intelligence has the potential to do this quickly and more effectively than humans – supporting doctors so they can spend more time with patients.

“We’re already making steps to improve diagnosis with our new sepsis tool, but we must also embrace any new technology solutions that can improve patient care and save lives.”

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