There are many different telemedicine platforms making their way into the U.S. health care system: Telestroke services, remote patient monitoring and the use of text messaging are just a few. Here’s one more that could be joining the forefront: Telepathology.
Researchers at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science and the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA have brought together online gaming and crowdsourcing to create a telemedicine platform that lets online gamers diagnose malaria.
Currently, malaria is diagnosed by a trained pathologist using a microscope, in a process that is very time-consuming. This presents a challenge for countries with a large number of cases of malaria and few resources to properly diagnose them. A false positive diagnosis — which is common with cases reported in sub-Sahara Africa — can lead to treatment that is costly and unnecessary.
UCLA’s researchers are hoping that the special game they created, which can be played on cell phones and computers from anywhere in the world, will help solve this problem. Players are first given a brief online tutorial that explains what malaria-infected red blood cells look like, then they play the game, in which they are given tools to “kill” infected cells and gather healthy ones together. The game includes control images that allow it to dynamically estimate the performance of each player and assign a score.
While a single person playing the game did not produce results comparable to those from a trained medical professional, the researchers found that a small group of players (mostly undergraduate student volunteers) could collectively be pretty accurate — within 1.25 percent of a professional. The researchers believe this collective accuracy could lead to a unique telemedicine platform that could diagnose a much larger volume of malaria cases — at no cost.
“The idea is to use crowds to get collectively better in pathologic analysis of microscopic images, which could be applicable to various telemedicine problems,” said Sam Mavandadi, a postdoctoral scholar in the research group and the study’s first author, in a news release from UCLA.
The team hopes to bring this telemedicine platform into the field through clinical trials, and would like to see it scale up to be used for “other biomedical and environmental applications in which microscopic images need to be examined by experts.”
The meshing of gaming and health care is not new, but the idea of a bunch of gamers collectively diagnosing malaria sure seems unique. The researchers at UCLA predict skepticism from traditional microscopists, pathologists, clinical laboratory personnel and malaria experts — but hope that further clinical studies will prove that the platform works.