Is an AI app better at diagnosing diseases than doctors? [Representational Image]Creative Commons

Can a smartphone 'Artificial Intelligence' application become as good as your doctor when it comes to diagnosing an illness? Yes, claims the manufacturer.

How does the app work?

The app goes on about asking the user 30 questions regarding the symptoms, pain, and other complaints with the possible illness. It diagnoses anything from a simple headache to stomach cancer, and the user is asked to consult a doctor immediately, if necessary.

The application developed by a controversial private firm, Babylon Health also offers General Practitioner (GP) appointments through Skype.

Doctors call the app dubious

As with any new invention regarding the machine diagnosing patients, even this app has been rubbished off. Doctors dispute Babylon's claims as 'dubious'. They have insisted that an app could never replace a personal face-to-face consultation with a GP.

They are concerned that the app might falsely reassure patients and miss some important, subtle symptoms which could mislead patients who are seriously ill.

However, the chief executive of Babylon Health, Ali Parsa, insisted that the app was never intended to replace GPs. He said that the app is probably good in diagnosing certain cancers than GPs, who only see a certain number of patients with cancer each year.

Parsa said, "We don't have enough doctors in the world to deal with the demands of the patients. Also with our doctors, their quality is varied. An average GP, how often do they see bowel cancer. It happens in one in 3,000 patients and a GP will see it maybe once every two or three years."

"Nine out of ten patients we can deal with through artificial intelligence or with remote consultation. That massively reduces the burden on the system and that allows us to see a lot more people," he said.

Varied opinions

Dr. Richard Vautrey, chair of the British Medical Association's GP committee chair says -

"AI may have a place in the tools doctors use to support and treat patients, but it cannot replace the essential elements of the doctor-patient relationship which is at the heart of medicine.

"However you develop these systems, they cannot replace the physical relationship between a GP or a doctor and that patient in front of them.

"Trying to say that this will provide a diagnosis is missing the much wider points of what happens in general practice and hospitals as well, where you have got patients presenting with a multitude of different problems.

You have to use the skills that you have developed over many years of training to be able to really work your way through the myriad of symptoms, concerns, and expectations that patient might have."

Professor Martin Marshall, vice chair of the Royal College of GPs, said, "The potential of technology to support doctors to deliver the best possible patient care is fantastic, but at the end of the day, computers are computers, and GPs are highly-trained medical professionals: the two can't be compared and the former may support but will never replace the latter."

How did they test?

In the GP assessment trial test that was presented by the company, the app performed better than an average GP. The app scored almost 81 percent in the diagnosis category of the Membership of the Royal College of GP (MRCGP) exam, which is the toughest exam for trainee GPs to qualify. It scored significantly higher than the 72 percent average score of trainee GPs.

A set of sample questions from the MRCGP exam which the trainee GPs must pass to qualify was tested on the app. The employees posing as patients typed in a range of symptoms, pain, and other complaints, typed in the app to check if it was able to correctly diagnose the illness.

Babylon further assessed the app by giving 100 case studies of patient illnesses and compared it to the performance os seven doctors.

The accuracy in diagnosing the illness by the app was 80 percent and the doctors scored between 64 percent and 94 percent.

Babylon Health has a contract to provide GP services to NHS patients and run their practice in Fulham, West London with more than 25,000 patients in their book. They are planning to expand their service to other major cities.

Patients can download the app for free and pay for virtual appointments.