In April this year, when Mumbai was in the grip of Covid-19, Dr Hemant Deshmukh, dean of the civic-run KEM Hospital and Seth GS Medical College, had a string of difficult decisions to make. Patients were pouring in by the dozen every hour and he didn’t have any time to lose. Who received the limited number of RT-PCR tests available? Who got a hospital bed? How did doctors make decisions about triaging? 

Deshmukh, the head of the city’s Covid task force and a radiologist with over two decades of medical practice under his belt, had never seen something like this. But all the hours he’d spent examining countless chest scan images proved handy. He realised that in the absence of RT-PCR test kits, chest X-rays could help segregate patients with pneumonia-like conditions. 

Covid hits both sides of the lungs, causing bilateral damage. It also typically blocks the arteries leading to the lungs, making its presentation in chest X-rays somewhat unique from Tuberculosis and lung cancer, says Deshmukh. Doctors could begin treatments based on this, he told The Ken.  

The idea, however, was only as good as the manpower available to manually read the X-rays. India is notoriously short short Global Healthcare Insights Need a CT Scan in India? You Might Have to Look Around Read more of trained radiologists. India has less than 20,000 radiologists, all concentrated in tier-1 and -2 cities—meaning only one radiologist for every 100,000 people in the country. So, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), Mumbai’s civic body, turned to tech instead.

MCGM has worked with Mumbai-based startup Qure.ai since November 2019, using its artificial intelligence artificial intelligence The Ken Why the Human Eye is the Window to AI in Healthcare Read more tech, trained on a repository of 3.5 million chest scans, to detect early signs of TB in municipal hospitals. India has the world’s largest number of TB cases, as of 2019, according to the World Health Organization. 

The software behind Qure’s artificial intelligence solution qXR takes about a minute to read each chest scan; the results would then pop up on the qXR app on the doctors’ phones. Pivoting from learning to recognise TB to Covid wasn’t much of a stretch. Both diseases used the same data repository, and the same set of civic officials was responding to both crises.

Mumbai’s civic machinery moved quickly, investing nearly Rs 2 crore ($270,000) upfront for emergency procurement of 10 digital X-ray machines. These were installed in hospitals as well as mobile vans deployed in hotspots—especially in areas like the densely-populated Worli and Dharavi—to screen those at risk.

AUTHOR

Maitri Porecha

Maitri writes about everything health for The Ken. For close to 10 years now, she has navigated hospital corridors in her search for a good story. In a past life, when she was not a journalist, she used to teach French at her neighbourhood school. Also an avid fan of forensics, she is always up for decoding mysteries in her free time.

View Full Profile

Sign up to our India edition to read this story instantly

To sign up, you’ll create an account that will give you access to a new free story published once a week and archive of 214+ previously published free stories from our India edition. You’ll also receive one email every morning from us introducing the day’s story.

If you’ve already signed up, just enter your email below or login using Facebook or Google.