Is artificial intelligence the key to effective and sustainable lung cancer screening?

Lizzie Barclay doctor

Dr Lizzie Barclay explores how artificial intelligence can influence lung cancer screening.

Radiology as the starting point

Imaging plays a fundamental role in lung cancer screening programmes. So, when it comes to improving technology to support the programmes, the radiology department is a good place to start.

The goal of screening is to pick up early cancers which can be treated and potentially cured, therefore improving patient outcomes (as outlined in the NHSE long term plan). Low dose CT has been shown to provide sufficient image quality for detection of early disease, whilst minimising radiation dose in asymptomatic individuals. Thoracic radiology expertise is required to determine which lung nodules may be malignant and therefore require invasive investigation, and which are likely benign and can be monitored with intermittent imaging. Appropriate follow-up recommendation helps avoid unnecessary invasive procedures, such as biopsies, and minimise patient anxiety, which are important measures of the efficacy of lung cancer screening programmes.

End to end lung cancer screening involves input from many healthcare professionals, and intelligent computer systems across specialities would benefit multidisciplinary teamwork. Thus, beyond image analysis, there are many opportunities for technology to add further support for effective and sustainable screening programmes. For instance, it could aid in the optimisation of image acquisition, access to imaging reports and relevant clinical details, tracking patient follow up, or in communication between patients and GPs.

Where AI-based image analysis makes a difference

Reading and reporting CT scans is time-consuming, and within a workforce which is already under strain, introducing a new CT-screening programme seems like a tall order. AI-driven solutions can support radiologists and contribute to successful lung cancer screening by bringing improvements in three areas:

  1. Performance

Computer intelligence can increase the performance and productivity of CT reporting, freeing up time for radiologists to spend on clinical decision making and complex cases. Specifically, AI software is well-suited for precise:

  • Detection of elusive lung nodules, and differentiation of subtle changes
  • Automatic volume measurements, to help determine the appropriate frequency of monitoring (e.g. stable vs growing nodule, according to the BTS guidelines).

What further distinguishes computers from humans is the absolute consistency in their high performance, without being impacted by common external stressors to which a radiologist would be exposed (e.g. time-pressure, workload and interruptions).

  1. (E)quality

Having a ‘second pair of eyes’ looking at the scan can increase the confidence of the radiologist in their own assessment. Additionally, making the AI-driven, accurate measurements available regardless of the level of expertise of the reporting radiologist could not only benefit quality assurance, but also equality within the radiology department. The use of AI would reduce the need for all scans to be reported by the most experienced thoracic radiologists with interest in early lung cancer detection, and instead facilitate spreading the workload across the workforce.

Another use case concerns quality assurance when outsourcing to teleradiology companies. AI-based image analysis can improve consistency of reporting, drive the recommended terminology use, and, essential for lung cancer screening, ensure access to relevant prior imaging for comparison and change assessment over time.

  1. Efficiency (via integration)

An intelligent computer system should not slow down reporting turnaround times, but improve efficiency, as well as quality, to ultimately minimize time to diagnosis (for example, the NHSE long term plan introduces a 28-days standard from referral to diagnosis or rule out).

Older CAD technology was often described as ‘clunky’ – requiring images to be uploaded to separate systems for analysis. Additional manual steps between image acquisition and the radiology report make the process time consuming, and often require radiology support staff to manage the workflow. It is important to consider allocative and technical efficiency which play important roles in the evaluation of screening programmes, and their impact on healthcare systems.

An AI-driven image analysis software which is fully-integrated in the radiologist’s pre-existing workflow can provide automatic results, without needing additional departmental resources. An additional benefit of fully-integrated AI solutions is that their use is not restricted by time or place, therefore supporting flexible and remote working. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been encouraging to see the increase in remote reporting, whilst maintaining a functioning department, in many hospital trusts. Going forward, it will be interesting to see whether radiologists will have the option to continue to work remotely where possible.

Valuing input from healthcare professionals

New lung cancer screening programmes will be monitored regularly to evaluate their effectiveness and determine areas for review. Commitment from all parties to work together will facilitate optimisation of the pathway to achieve better patient outcomes and positive impacts on healthcare systems.

In our experience, close collaboration between medtech and healthcare professionals is important for learning lessons along the way. Understanding radiologists’ needs helps tech teams develop a clinically valuable tool.

For example, Aidence’s interactive lung nodule reporting tool, Veye Reporting, was designed based on the needs of radiologists involved in reporting lung screening scans. From our conversations with them, we understood that following the detailed and complex reporting protocols in lung cancer screening programmes make for labour-intensive, repetitive tasks.

Veye reporting

To help them produce reports that follow the standardised NHSE proforma and facilitate audit for quality assurance, we added Veye Reporting as a feature to Veye Chest, focusing on making it easy-to-use and efficient. With this tool, the radiologists further have control over which nodules to include in the report, different sharing options, and the choice to add incidental findings.

What’s next?

Cancer services have been impacted by the COVID-19 health emergency. In the UK, screening has been paused and planning to (re-) start at the end of 2020 or beginning of 2021. Talks of introducing screening are ongoing in various European countries, as are concerns of catching up with the backlog of screening scans.

The British Society of Thoracic Imaging and the Royal College of Radiologists released these considerations for optimum lung cancer screening roll-out over the next five years. Their statement below is a reminder of why it is worth overcoming challenges and leveraging technology to make screening programmes a success:

BSTI_RCR statement

Dr Lizzie Barclay, Medical Director

Dr Lizzie Barclay’s areas of interest are thoracic radiology and medicine, innovation, and improving patient outcomes and healthcare professionals’ wellbeing.

Lizzie is originally from Manchester, UK. After graduating from the University of Leeds Medical School (MBChB), and Barts and the London School of Medicine (BSc sports & exercise medicine), Lizzie spent four years working as a doctor in Manchester and Liverpool NHS Trusts, including two years in Clinical Radiology. She has presented her work on lung cancer imaging at national/international conferences, and recently contributed to Lung Cancer Europe’s “Early Diagnosis and Screening” event at the EU Parliament in Brussels.

https://www.aidence.com/

You may be interested in the BIR Lung Cancer Imaging: Update for the not-so-new normalon 11 September 2020. This will be available for members in the BIR online learning libraryafter the live virtual event.

 

Bringing together Science, Faith and Cancer Care

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The Revd. Canon Dr. Mike Kirby, Chair of the BIR Oncology and Radiotherapy Special Interest Group, has a wealth of experience as a senior radiotherapy physicist, working on national guidance, developing clinical practice and teaching radiography students. As if this doesn’t keep him busy enough he has also taken on the role of Canon Scientist at Liverpool Cathedral where he is working to encourage dialogue and discussion about science and faith. Here he explains what the role involves.

I began work in the UK’s National Health Service more than 30 years ago, as a Radiotherapy Physicist at the Christie Hospital, Manchester UK.  Alongside my routine clinical work, my main research interest was in electronic portal imaging and portal dosimetry.  I then helped set up Rosemere Cancer Centre in Preston, UK from 1996 as deputy Head of Radiotherapy Physics and Consultant Clinical Scientist there.  During that time I contributed to and edited national guidance documents such as IPEM Reports 92, 93 and 94 and the multidisciplinary work, ‘On-target’.

My work moved back to the Christie in 2007 and as Head of Radiotherapy Physics and Consultant Clinical Scientist for the Satellite Centres, I helped to lead their development in Oldham and Salford as part of the Christie Network. My research and development work has primarily focused on electronic portal imaging, developing clinical practice and equipment development.

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More recently my focus has been on teaching and learning for radiotherapy education as a lecturer (Radiotherapy Physics), especially using VERT, for Radiotherapy programmes in the School of Health Sciences, Liverpool University; but always with a focus on the wider picture of radiotherapy development having served on both IPEM and BIR committees throughout my whole professional career.

 

Alongside my scientific work, I am a priest in the Church of England; having trained and studied at Westcott House and the Universities of Cambridge and Cumbria, I hold graduate and postgraduate degrees in Theology.

Mike Kirby

My ministry has mainly been in the Cathedrals of Blackburn, Chester, and Liverpool (Anglican) where I was Cathedral Chaplain.  I have recently (Feb 2020) become a Residentiary Canon of Liverpool Cathedral, with the title of Canon Scientist the primary aim of which is to encourage dialogue and discussion about science and faith.

 I am a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists and have given numerous talks on Science and Faith to schools, colleges, churches and other institutions.  These have included organising lecture series with world renowned speakers at Blackburn (2016) and Chester (2018) cathedrals; a third series was delivered at Liverpool Cathedral in May 2019, and a fourth series is planned for May 2020.

My role is to consider all sciences (physical, clinical, social) in ecumenical and multi-faith environments.  So I will look to work with initiatives already developing in other Christian traditions, other faiths and secular organisations to discuss current challenges, such as climate change, medical ethics, health initiatives and information for cancer, dementia and mental health issues etc..

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My work will be part of the clear faith objectives of the cathedral as a place of encounter for everyone, through events and initiatives within the cathedral, but also beyond.  This will include services focusing on health issues and pastoral challenges (such as bereavement and loss); events engaging with science, its wonders and challenges; fostering further relationships with local and wider communities on science and healthcare education, and with academic and scientific institutions too; encouraging scientific and ethical engagement with schools and colleges, as I have done so previously in both Chester and Blackburn dioceses.

I will be encouraging Christians and Christian leaders to understand science and engage with it more, alongside other national projects such as the recently announced ECLAS (Engaging Christian Leaders in an Age of Science) project of Durham and York universities and the Church of England.  As a self-supporting minister (one whose paid employment is outside of the church), I will also look to encourage and highlight the tireless work of many others who already do this within the diocese and the wider national church.

Within all of this, I have always seen my vocation as being one within God’s service, for all people, with my work for cancer patients being right at the heart of it.

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If you have any questions for Mike, you can send him an email at sigs@bir.org.uk

Mike is the co-author of the international student textbook on On-treatment Verification Imaging: a Study Guide for IGRT, through CRC press/Taylor and Francis with Kerrie-Anne Calder. They are both contributors to the updated UK national guidance on IGRT due out in 2020.

Mike, with the support of the SIG, has helped to organise a range of events for radiographers, physicists, dosimetrists, radiologists and oncologists. See the full programme here