As IBM’s Watson for Oncology rapidly lost popularity among the local medical community, the government is developing artificial intelligence (AI)-based precision medicine service called “Dr. Answer” to compete against Watson.
However, some physicians have already expressed skepticism over the upcoming service’s feasibility.
Dr. Answer drew keen attention because the government promised to allow reimbursements for the use of the service at hospitals, while medical institutions could not receive reimbursements for Watson which failed to be recognized as a medical device in Korea.
The Ministry of Science and ICT said it would spend 35.7 billion won ($30.2 million) from 2018 to 2020 to develop Dr. Answer. The program predicts, diagnoses, and treats a disease according to individual traits by analyzing their diagnostic information, medical images, genomic information and life logs.
Under the Dr. Answer program, the government is developing 21 AI-based medical software for eight diseases -- breast cancer, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, cardiovascular disease, heart disease, epilepsy, dementia, children’s rare and intractable genetic disease. Twenty-five medical institutions including Asan Medical Center and 19 companies including Vuno and Kakao Brain are participating in the Dr. Answer project.
Under the project, the government aims to build a module to analyze various medical information such as electronic medical records, images, and genomes and integrate them into big data that can be machine learned. It is also developing stage-by-stage AI software for eight diseases and other software that integrates medical data such as surgery, training, and psychological/rehabilitative treatments.
Despite the government’s massive investment in precision medicine service, physicians questioned whether Dr. Answer would be effective to prove better medical care.
The Dr. Answer project has too many hospitals participating which caused the government spending to split into small amounts for each. Such small fund will be hardly helpful to develop a well-working software, observers said.
The government well intended to provide precision medicine by linking cloud-based hospital information systems. However, physicians will barely trust doctors working at other hospitals and use their prescription records and surgery information.
A professor at a university hospital said there was no reason he had to use the government’s program when medical techniques and guidelines keep changing.
“At first, we will use it for a pilot trial but it will not last long. It cost a lot of money but I wonder we can ever trust it,” he said.
Another professor at another hospital said, “Dr. Answer will learn medical practice experiences of doctors at the five largest hospitals only. But whether other doctors will trust how Asan Medical Center physicians prescribe and operate and whether they will use them is another story.”
‘Dr. Answer needs long-term investment’
Physicians who are participating in the Dr. Answer program admitted that the new service could face limitations. Some of them said they needed more time to develop decent software and release it in the AI-based medical market.
Kim Jong-jae, head of Asan Medical Center’s Asan Institute for Life Sciences, said the Dr. Answer project needs more time at a recent forum.
“We are searching for ways to make the program a sustainable consortium,” he said.
“I don’t want it to end as a one-off event. I hope that accumulated data and experiences could become a platform for venture firms to utilize in the future,” Kim said.
To do so, the government should build a systematic frame, he added.
“The most important task in this project is to help participating venture firms to be successful,” he said.
A professor who is participating in the Dr. Answer project said Korea had no platform to collect medical data in one place.
“We are trying to do it through Dr. Answer. Large foreign companies are intensely investing in the healthcare sector, not only for Watson, but the reality in Korea is too grim,” the professor said.
“Many university hospitals are investing in the program because of the potentials of AI-based medical market, despite financial difficulties. For a Korean AI market to grow, venture companies have to grow, too. But if their sales are poor, who will jump into this market? Dr. Answer should help these companies grow together,” he added.
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