By analysing photos of individual faces, the computer system correctly identified seven of every 10 people in the study with acromegaly, a condition that leads to excessive growth in bones and tissues, including those of the face.
Doctors were able to correctly pick out people with acromegaly roughly six out of 10 times.
People with acromegaly have too much growth hormone, which can cause a variety of problems. They usually have a large jaw and tongue, widely spaced teeth, and enlarged bones in the forehead and cheeks.
The researchers wrote a computer program that analyses facial characteristics, such as the distances between features.
The computer out-performed physicians in identifying both those who had acromegaly and those who did not.
Looking only at pictures was a disadvantage for the doctors. The experts might have performed better if given the opportunity to do a normal examination of the patients, including their hands and feet. There was also no information available about people's symptoms.
Being able to diagnose acromegaly sooner in patients, before it develops into a more severe form, would greatly relieve suffering by giving people the opportunity for treatment earlier.
So far no computer-based diagnostic systems have replaced human scrutiny. Instead they are used as an adjunct.
For instance, pap smears, which are used to detect abnormal cervical cells in women, can go through a computerized optical screen, but they also receive a human analysis.
The acromegaly detection program is not yet ready for the doctor's office.
While the computer was good at figuring out which people had acromegaly, it was not so good at figuring out who didn't. The computer incorrectly diagnosed acromegaly in nearly nine percent of people who did not have the disease.
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Would you use a computer to diagnose your symptoms?