Delivering personalized medicine in retinal care: from artificial intelligence algorithms to clinical application : Current Opinion in Ophthalmology

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ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE IN RETINA: Edited by Judy E. Kim and Ehsan Rahimy

Delivering personalized medicine in retinal care: from artificial intelligence algorithms to clinical application

Jill Hopkins, J.a; Keane, Pearse A.b,c; Balaskas, Konstantinosb

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Current Opinion in Ophthalmology 31(5):p 329-336, September 2020. | DOI: 10.1097/ICU.0000000000000677



In recent years, the potential of artificial intelligence – in particular, a technique called deep learning – to transform health care has become increasingly apparent. Ophthalmology has been at the forefront of this revolution and may soon serve as an exemplar for other medical specialties. Catalyzed by upheavals of the global coronavirus pandemic, it seems likely artificial intelligence tools/platforms will allow world-class ophthalmic expertise to be brought increasingly into the community, and even the home. This should allow greatly enhanced outcomes/efficiency for patients and healthcare systems, with improved screening, triage, diagnosis, and monitoring of eye disease [1–3]. Predictive algorithm usage may also be a big step toward the goal of personalized health care (PHC) for patients by harnessing the power of data to deliver individualized care to patients with retinal disease. Perhaps most importantly, artificial intelligence-assisted scientific discovery may provide novel insights into disease progression and underlying pathophysiology [4▪▪], and improve clinical trial efficiency and success rates. Thus, the potential exists for artificial intelligence to meaningfully transform the care of patients with retinal disease at every stage of the patient journey to deliver truly personalized medicine and significantly impact the healthcare ecosystem of the future.

Although recent advances in artificial intelligence-enabled health care in retinal disease have been rapid, with some demonstrating clinical and real-world applicability [5▪▪,6], several hurdles remain for real patient benefit to be realized. Despite the hype, artificial intelligence in ophthalmology is still at a nascent stage. It is not yet widely used and has not yet led to patient benefits at scale. There remains a huge ‘artificial intelligence chasm’ that needs to be crossed before scalable deployment, meaningful real-world application, and human–artificial intelligence interaction can be achieved [4▪▪,7,8]. 

Box 1:
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Before validation and scalable deployment, large high-quality clinical datasets are critical for the training and evaluation of deep-learning models. There is a need to go beyond traditional biostatistical approaches using relatively small amounts of data (e.g., from clinical trials and small registries) to harnessing advanced analytic methods on large real-world datasets. A fundamental requirement is that these training datasets must be representative of those that will be encountered in future clinical applications [3,9]. They also need to be in a computationally tractable form, appropriately annotated, and in most circumstances, robustly deidentified. These requirements can be challenging and time consuming, and impact utilization of currently available datasets. While data from clinical trials (e.g., HARBOR [10]) and cohort studies (e.g., UK Biobank [11]) tend to be of high quality and contain deep individual patient-level information, these data are not always representative of clinical use cases and may not be of sufficient size or generalizability to achieve state-of-the-art results. Consequently, we have seen increased use of wider datasets derived from routine clinical care, such as the American Academy of Ophthalmology IRIS Registry (Intelligent Research In Sight) [12,13] of electronic health records (EHRs), and ophthalmic imaging bioresources such as the INSIGHT Health Data Research Hub for Eye Health [14] in the United Kingdom. In addition to training, it will be important that large datasets are also available to allow independent benchmarking of artificial intelligence systems and facilitate approval of commercial artificial intelligence systems by regulators. Significant recent progress has also been made in deriving ethical and legal frameworks for such work, both in the United States and elsewhere, with patient and public involvement and transparency about usage being paramount considerations [15–17].

With advances in technology, sources and modalities of data that could be harnessed will also expand [e.g., development of home-based vision monitoring and optical coherence tomography (OCT) [18] systems may allow much more frequent functional and structural retinal disease assessments]. With increasing 5G technology usage, along with cloud computing infrastructure [4▪▪,19], personal sensor and hyperlocal environmental data may also be captured and used as the substrate for artificial intelligence models. In coming years, we will also see rapid advances in collection of ‘-omic’ data, from genomics to metabolomics to oculomics. Systems and infrastructure to integrate and manage these data will also be critically important. In the future, ophthalmologists will likely use a range of narrowly focused artificial intelligence tools to integrate this information and to make individualized and informed decisions for their patients [19].


Deep learning uses artificial neural networks, named because of their superficial resemblance to biological neural networks, to discover intricate structure in large datasets. Convolutional neural network usage has proven particularly effective for image classification tasks, and thus much of the early focus of artificial intelligence in ophthalmology has been on classification of retinal photographs/OCT images. These choices have also been driven, in large part, by availability of existing large datasets of these images. As the artificial intelligence field continues to evolve and datasets in other areas become available, it is likely that the range of clinical applications (often termed ‘use cases’) will greatly expand. In the coming years, we are likely to see clinical applications for novel areas, such as generative adversarial networks [20,21], which allow synthetic data generation, and reinforcement learning [22,23], the technology underlying game-playing systems such as AlphaGo. In addition, automated deep-learning platform usage will allow clinical researchers without specialized expertise to scope feasibility of deep learning in healthcare applications [24▪▪]. This will likely be a major stimulus to novel use of such systems and the next phase of artificial intelligence ‘industrialization’.

As the translational pipeline for clinical artificial intelligence systems evolves and matures, a crucial aspect will be identification – and robust interrogation – of potential use cases. Identification and optimization of the correct metrics to measure performance/utility of an algorithm for specific-use cases will be needed.

The multiple stakeholders involved in the translational pipeline have potentially different needs and interests. For patients, it will be important to know how use will result in better treatment and outcomes. For clinicians, it could mean how it addresses an unmet need, benefits patients, and affects patient management. For regulators [25,26], it will be necessary to receive clear definitions of intended use with justifiable assumptions made from existing data, and how the system may evolve over time. For payers, it will be important to clarify who the product is intended for use by, in what population, in which disease subtype, and under what circumstances. On the contrary, much initial work in this space has not yet reached this level of consideration.


The first step toward bridging the ‘artificial intelligence chasm’ is robust validation of the algorithm's performance. If an artificial intelligence system can be used to identify congenital cataract, papilledema, or diabetic retinopathy [27–29], how will such images be obtained and does that already solve the clinical problem? Closely related to this, for artificial intelligence systems to be implemented, it is essential to establish benchmarks for human diagnostic performance at a range of expertise levels for screening, triage, diagnosis, and future prediction of retinal disease. At the same time, it is also essential to ensure that when artificial intelligence systems are used, they result in improvements in or are on par with human diagnostic performance, rather than decreasing accuracy [30], and that they are adequately generalizable to the clinical population at hand.

Several retrospective studies [2] with large numbers of patients have been used to train and test deep-learning algorithms; however, very few prospective studies have evaluated performance of artificial intelligence systems [31▪▪,32,33] in ophthalmology. A hierarchy of validation studies with ascending order of reliability would include retrospective in-silico validation using a hospital-based dataset with high prevalence of disease; out-of-sample validation by assessing performance on datasets from different patient populations than the one the algorithm was trained on; prospective observational validation by exposure of the algorithm to data representative of the diversity and variation in real-life clinical practice; and in prospective randomized controlled trials (RCTs), where possible. Retrospective studies performed in silico are often based on datasets from hospital settings with high prevalence of disease and are prone to selection bias. Very few algorithms have been externally validated with evaluation of human and artificial intelligence performance on the same dataset [34]. Prospective studies are needed to understand diagnostic accuracy of artificial intelligence systems in real-world settings. In a pivotal prospective trial of an artificial intelligence diagnostic system for diabetic retinopathy, diagnostic accuracy in predicting diabetic retinopathy severity was less than what was observed in retrospective studies, highlighting the need to validate performance of artificial intelligence systems in prospective validation studies with data representative of real-life diversity [31▪▪]. However, such studies will not address the issue of clinical effectiveness. Interventional RCTs would potentially be needed to address this key question. To date, there are very few RCTs of artificial intelligence systems [35], and such studies, particularly those aiming to use clinical outcomes and quality-of-life improvements as trial endpoints, may be needed for regulatory approval. EHRs and other observational databases also offer promise in validating deep-learning algorithms by extracting/incorporating real-world clinical data.

Technical maturity of artificial intelligence systems will depend upon performance validation in the general population, with low disease prevalence, versus a patient population; evaluation of positive predictive value of artificial intelligence systems to ensure a surge of false-positive results is avoided; and performance versus human experts, including in complex cases. To this end, frameworks and metrics for artificial intelligence performance reporting need to be established. Ability to fine-tune artificial intelligence models for different use cases and devices (interoperability across different imaging modalities and equipment); rapidly validate it for different patient populations than the ones it was originally trained on; technical integration of artificial intelligence tools and expertise at different levels of the care pathway with different levels of technical infrastructure maturity, including community (high-street optician); and secondary care will also be key to technical maturity of artificial intelligence systems.

Regulatory frameworks are fundamental to achieving safe and effective deployment of artificial intelligence algorithms, and efforts are evolving to ensure appropriate regulatory guidelines are in place as artificial intelligence systems become part of routine care delivery [25,36–38]. However, the current pace of innovation in artificial intelligence and unique nature of deep-learning models [8,35] pose a unique set of challenges; artificial intelligence systems are often designed to be autodidactic, and may also be constantly improved/upgraded by the provider throughout their lifecycles. Guidelines in development for ongoing performance monitoring that factor in anticipated modifications to artificial intelligence systems [39] will support identification of performance deficits over time, and allow continuous learning in real-world settings. The evolving artificial intelligence regulatory framework will have implications for clinical trial planning, ability to generate data outside of clinical trials from real-world evidence in the form of EHRs, and commercial development. Regulatory framework [40] for dealing with relevant ethics issues such as patient privacy and anonymity while handling protected health information, data security, and risk mitigation of artificial intelligence-based clinical prediction and decision support will also be needed. Regulatory requirements (prospective versus retrospective validation) may also differ based on the particular use case. It is imperative that all key stakeholders involved in the development and implementation of artificial intelligence systems collaborate with each other, and work closely with regulators in the regulatory framework development [36–38].

Regulation around conventional therapies typically requires postmarketing surveillance and clinical follow-up plans [41,42]. Currently, there are no long-term follow-up data available, with artificial intelligence systems being relatively novel. Artificial intelligence systems may also be prone to effects of the dataset shift [35] brought on by changes in practice or new data sources such as long-term follow-up data. Postmarket monitoring/follow-up and reporting will help implementation of corrective plans such as quantification of performance over time, updating, and recalibrating/retraining [39].


A system-level pathways transformation will be required for artificial intelligence systems to be deployed more broadly and maximize benefits. This in turn would require active participation across all stakeholders in community optometry, hospital-based eye departments, and payers of the system (commissioners), backed by good economic modeling. Such a system-level transformation could help identify the minimal infrastructure requirements/technical capacity that will be needed to make use of artificial intelligence systems/tools, identify mature models or closed systems that could help build the framework for other artificial intelligence systems, and ultimately should be able to demonstrate improvement in patient health outcomes.

Risks/safety implications of artificial intelligence systems could be associated with the underlying technology or the wider system it is implemented in. Methods adopted to monitor safety must be able to detect shortcomings in both. Interpretability of artificial intelligence systems to interrogate the decision-making process is also key and will dictate safety analysis method choice. A recent patient safety analysis [43] of artificial intelligence systems in diabetic retinopathy screening lays the road map for the future depending on the artificial intelligence model. Failure mode and effects analysis [44], which involves creating a detailed map of the process to identify any/all points that could fail, and system-theoretic process analysis, which identifies and analyzes potential safety gaps in systems and their consequence [45], are both amenable to application in artificial intelligence-based screening implementation. Another method called the Bowtie analysis, which is applied in safety-critical industries such as the aviation sector, provides a visual method to identify and map contributing factors to system failure, and solutions to mitigate risk, is now also being applied in health care [46].

Artificial intelligence system implementation in health care requires a financially viable business model for implementation and sustainability. Costs associated with artificial intelligence system adoption could include purchase price, resources, and time required for training, setup, and implementation, including cost of integrating technology into clinical workflow. Sustainability could be achieved if payers and hospitals adopt artificial intelligence models based on anticipated long-term cost implications from improvement in clinical outcome of interest, and reimbursement thresholds are altered to incentivize uptake. For a more comprehensive picture of costs/benefits, other cost efficiencies achieved through artificial intelligence-enabled pathways to patients (reduced hospital visits, travel costs, early treatment) and clinicians (reduced burden to hospital-based departments) should also be considered. To address these issues, future research to evaluate cost-effectiveness of artificial intelligence systems in larger cohorts across multiple artificial intelligence applications in health care and specific-use cases will be important.

There are limited cost–benefit reports from real-world use of artificial intelligence algorithms in clinical practice. Studies in diabetic retinopathy screening using artificial intelligence (semiautomated hybrid approaches) have demonstrated artificial intelligence model usage can be cost-effective [47–50]. A recent health economic assessment in diabetic retinopathy screening using artificial intelligence [43] suggested that where there is no established comparison, as is the case with artificial intelligence systems, cost-utility analysis could be the preferred method, or where clinical outcome needs to be evaluated, cost-effectiveness analysis could be the method of choice. Cost–benefit analysis could be an effective method for intervention assessment in resource-limited settings with high unmet clinical needs.

Despite the vast demonstrable potential of artificial intelligence models, adoption of these systems is still hindered by clinician and patient perception that artificial intelligence is a ‘black box’ [2]. The key to addressing this issue and achieving better human–computer interactions lies in improving artificial intelligence interpretability [2,35] (i.e., explain underlying features that drive decision-making in an understandable way, with emphasis on clinical applicability and effect on patient outcomes). This would help clinicians understand how artificial intelligence systems could assist them with data management, screening, triage, and decision support, enabling them to provide the best possible care to patients, rather than replace them. From the patient perspective, it is important to engage patients and address concerns that artificial intelligence systems will prevent interaction with clinicians. Interpretable algorithms that are transparent and lead to tangible clinical benefits for patients are more likely to engender trust and be accepted by clinicians and patients alike.

As artificial intelligence enters into medical practice to support clinical decisions, a different set of medicolegal challenges around medical liability, stemming from issues ranging from missed diagnoses to incorrect treatment based on artificial intelligence algorithm recommendations, is a key concern for medical professionals. Laws around medical liability involving artificial intelligence are not developed [51]. A key point is that current laws are dictated by whether standard of care has been adhered to. Because artificial intelligence is new to clinical practice, standards of care around artificial intelligence system usage must be established. Artificial intelligence interpretability will once again be key because it will allow for establishing effective procedures for risk assessment, risk mitigation, oversight, and incident investigation. Understanding around acceptable levels of risk and potential false positives/false negatives generated by an artificial intelligence model will also be key.

Emphasis on any of the above considerations could significantly differ between different countries and resource settings. For example, a retinopathy of prematurity screening tool could have a significant positive impact on healthcare outcomes in systems underresourced for pediatric ophthalmologists, which could affect the approach to risk acceptances. This example highlights the need for implementation science work on a local level adapted to the ‘pain points’ and priority needs of each system.

Trials that assess and validate how such a system-level transformation could be achieved using telemedicine and artificial intelligence; overcome barriers to clinical deployment; address issues of cost-effectiveness and patient and healthcare professional acceptability/trust; perceptions of the ‘black box’ phenomenon; and concerns about impersonal care, training, and familiarization with the technology, are underway (HERMES study) [52]. Work of this kind will be increasingly needed to bridge the ‘artificial intelligence chasm’ and move artificial intelligence systems from the laboratory to front-line clinical practice for the benefit of patients and healthcare systems.


To truly deliver PHC in the management of retinal diseases, a system-level paradigm shift enabled by collaboration of all stakeholders will be needed to tackle existing challenges (Fig. 1). The opportunity to address unmet needs in delivering PHC has been presented by artificial intelligence, and artificial intelligence-enabled telemedicine/virtual clinics [47,53] (e.g., positive OCT picked up by artificial intelligence in the high-street optometry practice triggers a direct appointment to a hospital-based injection clinic, potentially bypassing the intermediate diagnostic step at the hospital, enabling early treatment) are working to demonstrate this promise. However, a commitment to addressing the unmet needs in each stage of development of a PHC solution has to be made.

Artificial intelligence and personalized medicine in retina: from ideation to adoption.

Harnessing data

Clinical healthcare researchers and artificial intelligence experts (academia and industry) must tackle challenges in curation and annotation of large datasets, linking clinical (and other) data to ophthalmic images obtained by various modalities, and standardizing digital imaging and communications in ophthalmology.

Validating artificial intelligence systems

Clinical healthcare researchers and artificial intelligence experts (academia and industry) must collaborate to develop artificial intelligence systems trained on well-curated datasets and real-world data, and develop clinical trials and evidence packages that demonstrate clear benefit and impact of the artificial intelligence system.

Infrastructure development

Clinical healthcare researchers and artificial intelligence experts (academia and industry) must work together to develop systems to integrate and manage data, and to support real-time run efforts of deployed artificial intelligence systems.


Academic and industry experts need to work with policy makers and regulators to develop frameworks for implementation of technically mature artificial intelligence systems into the clinic.


Healthcare workforce (ophthalmologists/optometrists, clinics, payers, healthcare systems) embrace artificial intelligence systems and create an environment primed for adoption based on demonstrable value of artificial intelligence systems to their patients.


Ultimately, patients are at the center of PHC, and it is critical for them to fully engage based on their understanding of artificial intelligence system benefits, in the knowledge that their data and personal health information are protected, and that the ultimate goal of any artificial intelligence system is to improve their treatment journey and outcome.

This is the journey that we as healthcare providers must enable with our patients, from the earliest inception of an artificial intelligence-enabled solution to the impact it will ultimately enable in their care. Ophthalmology is poised to be a leader in the implementation of PHC, and with coordinated efforts across the spectrum of system design and implementation, stands to be an exemplar for other medical specialties.


The authors would like to thank Priya Snehil at Moorfields Eye Hospital, for contributions to the development of the figure, and Anh Duong, Ophthalmology PHC program manager at Roche-Genentech for program and editorial support in development of this review.

Financial support and sponsorship

Funding was provided by Genentech, Inc. for the study and third-party writing assistance, which was provided by Dinakar Sambandan, PhD, of Envision Pharma Group.

Conflicts of interest

J.J.H. is an employee of Genentech, Inc. P.A.K. has been a consultant for Apellis, DeepMind, Novartis, and Roche; has received speaker fees from Allergan, Bayer, Heidelberg Engineering, and Topcon; is an equity owner in Big Picture Medical; and receives funding from the Moorfields Eye Charity career development award. K.B. has been a consultant for Novartis and Roche; and has received speaker fees from Alimera, Allergan, Bayer, Heidelberg Engineering, Novartis, and Topcon.


Papers of particular interest, published within the annual period of review, have been highlighted as:

▪ of special interest

▪▪ of outstanding interest


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artificial intelligence; deep learning; personalized health care

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