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Eye on the prize: PhD student looks to AI to help improve healthcare access in developing countries

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Does your blood boil whenever a doctor keeps you waiting? Are you sick of being stuck on waiting lists for surgeries or seeing a specialist?

Spare a thought for those living in low and low-middle-income countries where seeing a doctor or specialist is a last resort and an unaffordable luxury for many.

Saad Islam is a highly motivated PhD student at the University of Southern Queensland who is using his knowledge of artificial intelligence to develop an innovative solution to help alleviate pressure on healthcare systems.

Growing up in Bangladesh, Saad saw first-hand the barriers and difficulties people in his nation face when accessing healthcare.

“About 150 million more people are living in Bangladesh than Australia, yet there are almost twice as many doctors here (Australia),” he said.

“They are well behind in research, and the level of healthcare is nowhere near what it is like in Australia.

“Many people who do not live in cities or are from a lower socioeconomic background must wait months to see a specialist or cannot afford it. Some people do not even try because they do not think it is worth the long wait and hope their health problem will disappear.”

Saad is creating an automated and accurate retinal health screening system using AI.

Built on machine learning and deep learning, the system would help improve the diagnosis of some of the most debilitating eye diseases that cause blindness, including glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, and age-related macular degeneration, without human intervention.

According to the World Health Organisation, preventable vision impairment causes more than AUD 600 billion annually in global productivity losses.

“A solution based on AI would not only save time, but it will also make it affordable for patients to diagnose their diseases,” Saad said.

“What I’m proposing is creating an AI model that would take an image of the eye and instantly be able to diagnose sight-threatening eye diseases accurately.

“The model will be trained with a dataset of thousands of fundus images, and only after it meets a certain threshold would the model be able to be used by the mainstream public.

“This has the potential to vastly improve early detection of eye disease, which is vital to preserving vision and slowing down the progression of the disease.

“It will also reduce errors and save time and costs for healthcare providers, especially in developing countries with critical shortages of doctors.

“Doctors in many countries like mine are pushed to their limits as they are sometimes forced to see up to 100 patients a day.

“The fatigue, pressure and stress this causes can sometimes lead to unintentional mistakes and misdiagnosis.

“New technologies like AI-powered health screening tools can help significantly reduce the number of patients in waiting rooms and make it easier for doctors to do their job.”

Saad holds a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and Engineering from North South University in Bangladesh and a Master’s degree, specialising in Business, Management and Organisations, and Marketing at Sydney’s Macquarie University.

In 2021, at 27, Saad became the youngest Bangladeshi to be selected for a PhD in the Artificial Intelligence program with a full scholarship at the University of Southern Queensland.

He is also a writer, with all four of his books reaching the best-selling list in his country.

“I have always had a passion for helping people, and I am passionate about AI because of its immense potential,” Saad said.

“We are only scratching the surface of the potential applications of AI and healthcare in improving patient outcomes and reducing the burden on healthcare systems.

“I have always wanted to provide value to people, which is why one of my other passions is writing. My ambition is to write a book on artificial intelligence because I want to inspire more people to pursue this field.

“I hope this will bring more people into the field of AI, which can inspire our next generation to leverage AI to solve many complex problems around the world.

“I am grateful to my family and loved ones for their unwavering support, which made my PhD possible.

“I am also grateful to my world-class PhD supervisors, Professors Ravinesh Deo, Jeffrey Soar, Rajendra Acharya and Prabal Datta Barua, for their mentorship and guidance.”