Autonomous & Ultrafast Breast MRI

A new study out of the University of Groningen highlighted the scanning and diagnostic efficiency advantages that might come from combining ultrafast breast MRI with autonomous AI. That might make some readers uncomfortable, but the fact that autonomous AI is one of 2022’s most controversial topics makes this study worth some extra attention.

The researchers used 837 “TWIST” ultrafast breast MRI exams from 488 patients (118 abnormal breasts, 34 w/ malignant lesions) to train and validate a deep learning model to detect and automatically exclude normal exams from radiologist workloads. They then tested it against 178 exams from 149 patients from the same institution (55 abnormal, 30 w/ malignant lesions), achieving a 0.81 AUC.

When evaluated at a conservative 0.25 detection error threshold, the DL model:

  • Achieved 98% sensitivity and negative predictive values
  • Misclassified one abnormal exam as normal (out of 55)
  • Correctly classified all exams with malignant lesions
  • Would have reduced radiologists’ exam workload by 6.2% (-15.7% at breast level)

When evaluated at a 0.37 detection error threshold, the model:

  • Achieved 95% sensitivity and a 97% negative predictive value (still high)
  • Misclassified three abnormal exams (3 of 55), including one malignant lesion
  • Would have reduced radiologists’ exam workload by 15.7% (-30.6% at breast level)

These radiologist workflow improvements would complement the TWIST ultrafast MRI sequence’s far shorter magnet time than current protocols (2 vs. 20 minutes), while the DL model could further reduce scan times by automatically ending exams once they are flagged as normal. 

The Takeaway

Even if the world might not be ready for this type of autonomous AI workflow, this study is a good example of how abbreviated MRI protocols and AI could be able to improve both imaging team and radiologist efficiency. It’s also the latest in a series of studies exploring how AI could exclude normal scans from radiologist workflows, suggesting that the development and design of this type of autonomous AI will continue to mature.

Autonomous AI Milestone

Just as the debate over whether AI might replace radiologists is starting to fade away, Oxipit’s ChestLink solution became the first regulatory-approved imaging AI product intended to perform diagnoses without involving radiologists (*please see editor’s note below regarding Behold.ai). That’s a big and potentially controversial milestone in the evolution of imaging AI and it’s worth a deeper look.

About ChestLink – ChestLink autonomously identifies CXRs without abnormalities and produces final reports for each of these “normal” exams, automating 15% to 40% of reporting workflows.

Automation Evidence – Oxipit has already piloted ChestLink in supervised settings for over a year, processing over 500k real-world CXRs with 99% sensitivity and no clinically relevant errors.

The Rollout – With its CE Class IIb Mark finalized, Oxipit is now planning to roll out ChestLink across Europe and begin “fully autonomous” operation by early 2023. Oxipit specifically mentioned primary care settings (many normal CXRs) and large-scale screening projects (high volumes, many normal scans) in its announcement, but ChestLink doesn’t appear limited to those use cases.

ChestLink’s ability to address radiologist shortages and reduce labor costs seem like strong and unique advantages. However, radiology’s first regulatory approved autonomous AI solution might face even stronger challenges:

  • ChestLink’s CE Mark doesn’t account for country-specific regulations around autonomous diagnostic reporting (e.g. the UK requires “appropriate reporting” with ionizing radiation-based exams)
  • Radiologist societies historically push back against anything that might undermine radiologists’ clinical roles, earning potential, and future career stability
  • Health systems’ evidence requirements for any autonomous AI tools would likely be extremely high, and they might expect similarly high economic ROI in order to justify the associated diagnostic or reputational risks
  • Even the comments in Oxipit’s LinkedIn announcement had a much more skeptical tone than we typically see with regulatory approval announcements

The Takeaway

Autonomous AI products like ChestLink could address some of radiology’s greatest problems (radiologist overwork, staffing shortages, volume growth, low access in developing countries) and their economic value proposition is far stronger than most other diagnostic AI products.

However, autonomous AI solutions could also face more obstacles than any other imaging AI products we’ve seen so far, suggesting that it would take a combination of excellent clinical performance and major changes in healthcare policies/philosophies in order for autonomous AI to reach mainstream adoption.

*Editor’s Note – April 21, 2022: Behold.ai insists that it is the first imaging AI company to receive regulatory approval for autonomous AI. Its product is used with radiologist involvement and local UK guidelines require that radiologists read exams that use ionizing radiation. All above analysis regarding the possibilities and challenges of autonomous AI applies to any autonomous AI vendor in the current AI environment, including both Oxipit and Behold.ai.

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-- The Imaging Wire team