Chinese app to aid diagnosis of skin diseases

Blisters on the skin of a shingles patient.
PHOTO: National Skin Centre

A university hospital in Hunan province is developing an online service to accurately diagnose skin conditions in seconds, as well as offer advice on where to seek treatment.

The service, an app that works with WeChat, will require users to upload a photo of the affected area.

An artificial intelligence-assisted system will then scan the photo to identify the problem.

The system, currently available only to doctors for testing, is expected to be opened to the public as early as October. It is being developed by the Second Xiangya Hospital of Central South University in Changsha and a technology company, Danale, based in Shenzhen, Guangdong province.

"The technology will be used to assist in the diagnosis of common skin diseases by providing a reference for doctors, especially those at grassroots clinics, and to provide guidance for patients seeking treatment," said Lu Qianjin, director of the hospital's dermatology department.

Lu said the app has proved capable of diagnosing lupus, a rare skin disease, with 85 per cent accuracy.

Skin diseases appear in a variety of forms, and some types resemble others, which makes diagnosis challenging for doctors, particularly those at the grassroots, Lu said.

"It's difficult to have a thorough knowledge of every type of skin disease, and doctors at grassroots face more challenges in accurate diagnosis since they see fewer patients," he said.

"That's why we decided to develop the system - to aid in diagnosis."

As skin damage is a major clue in the diagnosis of skin diseases, conditions are easier to diagnose using Central South University's clinical database, which includes vast numbers of images, Lu said.

"When a doctor uploads an image of a skin condition to the system, the computer will evaluate the image and compare it with the massive image data it has stored. It can then provide a list of diagnosis results for reference," Lu said.

The system was first aimed at diagnosing lupus because the hospital has accumulated a large number of photos of the disease over the past 20 years, Lu said.

Jin Lu, a technology supervisor at Danale, said the company will intensify research and development so the system will be upgraded to support the diagnosis of other skin diseases with improved accuracy.

With the quick development of technology in China, AI is playing a more important role in the medical care sector. In March, Baheal Pharm, a Chinese company that focuses on health, announced a partnership with IBM to introduce Watson for Oncology - a cognitive computing platform designed to assist in the diagnosis and treatment of some common cancers - to medical institutions in China.