Atrium Health doctors use artificial intelligence and robots to help detect lung cancer early

New technology available at Atrium Health is helping doctors detect lung cancers in patients.
New technology available at Atrium Health is helping doctors detect lung cancers in patients.(Atrium Health)
Published: Jun. 17, 2021 at 8:00 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Doctors at Atrium Health are using artificial intelligence and robots to help them detect lung cancers at an earlier stage.

Dr. John Doty is a pulmonologist and the Medical Director of Atrium Health’s Incidental Nodule and Lung Cancer Screening Programs. In February, Dr. Doty said the hospital system started using artificial intelligence to detect incidental lung cancers.

Dr. Doty says incidental lung cancers are cancers that they detect by accident. For example, a patient may go to the ER for stomach pain and a CT Scan is ordered. Dr. Doty said in addition to the stomach, the CT Scan may show nodules on the patient’s lung.

A doctor may treat the stomach pain, but also tell the patient to follow up with their primary care provider about the nodules found on the lung. Dr. Doty said some patients forget to follow-up on the nodule because of a more pressing diagnosis.

“For lack of a better term it’s just forgotten,” Dr. Doty said. “You may be more distracted by an acute finding. Maybe it’s the stomach pain or maybe the patient is having a heart attack or something like that. The nodule just gets pushed to the background.”

Doctors say the earlier you can detect cancer, the better chance you have at treating it. So, missing or forgetting to follow-up on the lung nodule could make a big difference in a cancer diagnosis.

In February, Dr. Doty said they started using artificial intelligence to scan all the radiology reports in the Atrium Health System. Doctors helped program the software to detect words in radiology reports such as ‘lung nodule’, ‘lung mass’, or ‘pulmonary mass’, to name a few. When the artificial intelligence detects those words in a radiology report, an alert is issued. Nurse navigators check the alerts each day and can remind or refer patients to follow-up with a primary care provider or specialist.

“The ultimate goal is to find a lung cancer at its earliest stage when it is most treatable and when you have the best chance at cure,” Dr. Doty explained.

Already, Dr. Doty said the artificial intelligence has helped them detect a handful of cancers, including a case of breast cancer and lymphoma, even though the intent of the technology is to detect lung cancers.

In a separate advancement, Atrium Health is using new robotic technology to help doctors take biopsies of lung nodules. Sometimes a type of biopsy known as a bronchoscopy is needed to diagnose lung cancer.

To complete a bronchoscopy, Dr. Doty said they insert a lighted scope into the patient’s airways to get a better look at the nodule. Dr. Doty also said traditional scopes are limited because it can only go so far. Those limitations makes it difficult to view small nodules or nodules deep within the lung tissue.

Last month, Atrium Health began conducting robotic bronchoscopies. Dr. Doty said the robotic scope is smaller and steadier, which allows diagnostics to be more precise.

“We should be able to get smaller nodules and smaller would imply earlier stage nodules than what we would be able to get traditionally,” Dr. Doty explained.

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