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A Health App's AI Took on Human Doctors to Triage Patients

Robot triage could free up doctors' time for other tasks, but is likely to meet with resistance.
Founder Ali Parsa. Image: Babylon Health

Two decades on from artificial intelligence beating chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, AI is proving it can do some conventionally human jobs. One UK-based health app now hopes its AI can take over some tasks that would usually only be trusted to a doctor or nurse.

In a swish new office in London's Chelsea on Tuesday, health technology firm Babylon pitted its app against a junior doctor and a nurse with 20 years of accident and emergency experience. The machine and the medical professionals were tasked with deciding the priority of treatment for an ailment, a process known in the medical profession as triage.


Irwin Nazareth, professor of primary care and population sciences at UCL and a committee chairman at Health Education England, moderated the challenge and ruled the artificial intelligence was as accurate as the nurse and doctor in its assessments.

The symptom check tool. Image: Babylon Health

In the challenge between nurse and machine, nurse Cheryl Meineke recommended the fictional patient visit the pharmacist about a problem with their ear, while the AI suggested a visit to the GP.

"They are both correct, but the [Babylon] symptom checker is erring on the side of caution," said Nazareth. "They will both lead to the same outcome, so that is fantastic."

When Babylon's tech took on Oxford-educated junior doctor Keziah Austin, both recommended the patient visit a GP, but the AI was in favour of greater urgency.

Babylon says its "Check a Symptom" triage feature, which operates via a Q&A within the app, can work with billions of variations of symptoms. Research carried out by Babylon claims its AI outperformed both doctors and nurses across 102 mock patient consultations.

Its study found the Babylon system produced a clinically safe outcome in 100 percent of cases, while it provided an "accurate" triage in 90.2 percent. An accurate triage was defined as a "gold standard" recommendation that was pre-determined by a panel of top doctors. Nurses and doctors were were safe in 97 percent and 98 percent of the trials respectively, and accurate 73.5 percent and 77.5 percent of the time.


"There will be resistance from the people who have trained for years and have so much knowledge and experience"

Babylon founder Ali Parsa is now seeking to extend the AI technology into diagnosing illnesses.

"There is no question artificial intelligence will diagnose better than a doctor eventually," said Parsa. "It does not mean doctors will be out of a job but they can do less of the boring basic stuff in the medium-term. In the long term, who knows what these machines will do? We have all read science fiction."

The company this year received investment from the founders of Google-owned AI firm DeepMind, Demis Hassabis and Mustafa Suleyman, but Parsa was quick to stress their investment was on a personal level rather than through DeepMind as a company. "We do not take money from the likes of Google," he said. "These are the people who are fellow entrepreneurs in the same area of work as us."

Are doctors and nurses worried AI could do all of their work?

"We won't say yes to that, because we will be out of a job," said Dr Austin. "AI will add a lot; we will see in the future how far it can go."

Meineke agreed it could help alleviate some of the pressures on Britain's overstretched NHS, but warned implementing it could prove tricky.

"There will be resistance from the people who have trained for years and have so much knowledge and experience," said Meineke. "This is new and we are really at the sharp end of AI for for healthcare and it will forge a path through."

UK-based Babylon has ambitions for the technology beyond the UK and is working with the Rwandan government to set up the first digital health service in East Africa later this year.