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AMA Issues Proposal to Help Circumvent False and Misleading Information When Using Artificial Intelligence in Medicine

Pathologists and clinical laboratory managers will want to stay alert to the concerns voiced by tech experts about the need to exercise caution when using generative AI to assist medical diagnoses

Even as many companies push to introduce use of GPT-powered (generative pre-trained transformer) solutions into various healthcare services, both the American Medical Association (AMA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) as well as healthcare professionals urge caution regarding use of AI-powered technologies in the practice of medicine. 

In June, the AMA House of Delegates adopted a proposal introduced by the American Society for Surgery of the Hand (ASSH) and the American Association for Hand Surgery (AAHS) titled, “Regulating Misleading AI Generated Advice to Patients.” The proposal is intended to help protect patients from false and misleading medical information derived from artificial intelligence (AI) tools such as GPTs.

GPTs are an integral part of the framework of a generative artificial intelligence that creates text, images, and other media using generative models. These neural network models can learn the patterns and structure of inputted information and then develop new data that contains similar characteristics.

Through their proposal, the AMA has developed principles and recommendations surrounding the benefits and potentially harmful consequences of relying on AI-generated medical advice and content to advance diagnoses.

Alexander Ding, MD

“We’re trying to look around the corner for our patients to understand the promise and limitations of AI,” said Alexander Ding, MD (above), AMA Trustee and Associate Vice President for Physician Strategy and Medical Affairs at Humana, in a press release. “There is a lot of uncertainty about the direction and regulatory framework for this use of AI that has found its way into the day-to-day practice of medicine.” Clinical laboratory professionals following advances in AI may want to remain informed on the use of generative AI solutions in healthcare. (Photo copyright: American Medical Association.)

Preventing Spread of Mis/Disinformation

GPTs are “a family of neural network models that uses the transformer architecture and is a key advancement in artificial intelligence (AI) powering generative AI applications such as ChatGPT,” according to Amazon Web Services.

In addition to creating human-like text and content, GPTs have the ability to answer questions in a conversational manner. They can analyze language queries and then predict high-quality responses based on their understanding of the language. GPTs can perform this task after being trained with billions of parameters on massive language datasets and then generate long responses, not just the next word in a sequence. 

“AI holds the promise of transforming medicine,” said diagnostic and interventional radiologist Alexander Ding, MD, AMA Trustee and Associate Vice President for Physician Strategy and Medical Affairs at Humana, in an AMA press release.

“We don’t want to be chasing technology. Rather, as scientists, we want to use our expertise to structure guidelines, and guardrails to prevent unintended consequences, such as baking in bias and widening disparities, dissemination of incorrect medical advice, or spread of misinformation or disinformation,” he added.

The AMA plans to work with the federal government and other appropriate organizations to advise policymakers on the optimal ways to use AI in healthcare to protect patients from misleading AI-generated data that may or may not be validated, accurate, or relevant.

Advantages and Risks of AI in Medicine

The AMA’s proposal was prompted by AMA-affiliated organizations that stressed concerns about the lack of regulatory oversight for GPTs. They are encouraging healthcare professionals to educate patients about the advantages and risks of AI in medicine. 

“AI took a huge leap with large language model tool and generative models, so all of the work that has been done up to this point in terms of regulatory and governance frameworks will have to be treated or at least reviewed with this new lens,” Sha Edathumparampil, Corporate Vice President, Digital and Data, Baptist Health South Florida, told Healthcare Brew.

According to the AMA press release, “the current limitations create potential risks for physicians and patients and should be used with appropriate caution at this time. AI-generated fabrications, errors, or inaccuracies can harm patients, and physicians need to be acutely aware of these risks and added liability before they rely on unregulated machine-learning algorithms and tools.”

According to the AMA press release, the organization will propose state and federal regulations for AI tools at next year’s annual meeting in Chicago.

In a July AMA podcast, AMA’s President, Jesse Ehrenfeld, MD, stressed that more must be done through regulation and development to bolster trust in these new technologies.

“There’s a lot of discomfort around the use of these tools among Americans with the idea of AI being used in their own healthcare,” Ehrenfeld said. “There was a 2023 Pew Research Center poll [that said] 60% of Americans would feel uncomfortable if their own healthcare provider relied on AI to do things like diagnose disease or recommend a treatment.”

WHO Issues Cautions about Use of AI in Healthcare

In May, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a statement advocating for caution when implementing AI-generated large language GPT models into healthcare.

A current example of such a GPT is ChatGPT, a large language-based model (LLM) that enables users to refine and lead conversations towards a desired length, format, style, level of detail and language. Organizations across industries are now utilizing GPT models for Question and Answer bots for customers, text summarization, and content generation and search features. 

“Precipitous adoption of untested systems could lead to errors by healthcare workers, cause harm to patients, erode trust in AI, and thereby undermine (or delay) the potential long-term benefits and uses of such technologies around the world,” commented WHO in the statement.

WHO’s concerns regarding the need for prudence and oversight in the use of AI technologies include:

  • Data used to train AI may be biased, which could pose risks to health, equity, and inclusiveness.
  • LLMs generate responses that can appear authoritative and plausible, but which may be completely incorrect or contain serious errors.
  • LLMs may be trained on data for which consent may not have been given.
  • LLMs may not be able to protect sensitive data that is provided to an application to generate a response.
  • LLMs can be misused to generate and disseminate highly convincing disinformation in the form of text, audio, or video that may be difficult for people to differentiate from reliable health content.

Tech Experts Recommended Caution

Generative AI will continue to evolve. Therefore, clinical laboratory professionals may want to keep a keen eye on advances in AI technology and GPTs in healthcare diagnosis.

“While generative AI holds tremendous potential to transform various industries, it also presents significant challenges and risks that should not be ignored,” wrote Edathumparampil in an article he penned for CXOTECH Magazine. “With the right strategy and approach, generative AI can be a powerful tool for innovation and differentiation, helping businesses to stay ahead of the competition and better serve their customers.”

GPT’s may eventually be a boon to healthcare providers, including clinical laboratories, and pathology groups. But for the moment, caution is recommended.

JP Schlingman

Related Information:

AMA Adopts Proposal to Protect Patients from False and Misleading AI-generated Medical Advice

Regulating Misleading AI Generated Advice to Patients

AMA to Develop Recommendations for Augmented Intelligence

What is GPT?

60% of Americans Would Be Uncomfortable with Provider Relying on AI in Their Own Health Care

Navigating the Risks of Generative AI: A Guide for Businesses

Contributed: Top 10 Use Cases for AI in Healthcare

Anatomic Pathology at the Tipping Point? The Economic Case for Adopting Digital Technology and AI Applications Now

ChatGPT, AI in Healthcare and the future of Medicine with AMA President Jesse Ehrenfeld, MD, MPH

What is Generative AI? Everything You Need to Know

WHO Calls for Safe and Ethical AI for Health

GPT-3

Researchers Use Whole Genome Sequencing to Make Surprising Discovery about Hospital-Acquired C. Diff Infections

By analyzing strains of the bacterium from a hospital ICU, the scientists learned that most infections were triggered within patients, not from cross-transmission

Tracking the source of Hospital-acquired infections (HAI) has long been centered around the assumption that most HAIs originate from cross-transmission within the hospital or healthcare setting. And prevention measures are costly for hospitals and medical laboratories. However, new research puts a surprising new angle on a different source for some proportion of these infections.

The study suggests that most infections caused by Clostridioides difficile (C. Diff), the bacterium most responsible for HAIs, arise not from cross-transmission in the hospital, but within patients who already carry the bacterium.

The research team, led by immunologist Evan Snitkin, PhD, and microbiologist Vincent Young, MD, PhD, both from the University of Michigan (UM), and epidemiologist Mary Hayden, MD, of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, analyzed fecal samples from more than 1,100 patients in Rush Medical Center’s intensive care unit over a nine-month period.

A researcher performed whole genome sequencing on 425 strains of the bacterium isolated from the samples and found “very little evidence that the strains of C. diff from one patient to the next were the same, which would imply in-hospital acquisition,” according to a UM news story.

“In fact, there were only six genomically supported transmissions over the study period. Instead, people who were already colonized were at greater risk of transitioning to infection,” UM stated.

Arianna Miles-Jay, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in The Snitkin Lab at the University of Michigan and Manager of the Genomic Analysis Unit at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, performed the genomic sequencing. “By systematically culturing every patient, we thought we could understand how transmission was happening. The surprise was that, based on the genomics, there was very little transmission,” she said in the UM news story.

The researchers published their findings in the journal Nature Medicine titled, “Longitudinal Genomic Surveillance of Carriage and Transmission of Clostridioides Difficile in an Intensive Care Unit.”

Evan Snitkin, PhD

“Something happened to these patients that we still don’t understand to trigger the transition from C. diff hanging out in the gut to the organism causing diarrhea and the other complications resulting from infection,” said Evan Snitkin, PhD (above), Associate Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, and Associate Professor of Internal Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases at University of Michigan, in a UM news story. Medical laboratories involved in hospital-acquired infection prevention understand the importance of this research and its effect on patient safety. (Photo copyright: University of Michigan.)

Only a Fraction of HAIs Are Through Cross-Transmission

In the study abstract, the researchers wrote that “despite enhanced infection prevention efforts, Clostridioides difficile remains the leading cause of healthcare-associated infections in the United States.”

Citing data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HealthDay reported that “nearly half a million C. diff infections occur in the United States each year. Between 13,000 and 16,000 people die from the bacterium, which causes watery diarrhea and inflammation of the colon. Many of these infections and deaths have been blamed on transmission between hospitalized patients.”

The new study, however, notes that 9.3% of the patients admitted to the ICU carried toxigenic (produces toxins) C. diff, but only 1% acquired it via cross-transmission. The carriers, the study authors wrote, “posed minimal risk to others,” but were 24 times more likely to develop a C. diff infection than non-carriers.

“Our findings suggest that measures in place in the ICU at the time of the study—high rates of compliance with hand hygiene among healthcare personnel, routine environmental disinfection with an agent active against C. diff, and single patient rooms —were effective in preventing C. diff transmission,” Snitkin told HealthDay. “This indicates that to make further progress in protecting patients from developing C. diff infections will require improving our understanding of the triggers that lead patients asymptomatically carrying C. diff to transition to having infections.”

Recognizing Risk Factors

Despite the finding that infections were largely triggered within the patients, the researchers still emphasized the importance of taking measures to prevent hospital-acquired infections.

“In fact, the measures in place in the Rush ICU at the time of the study—high rates of compliance with hand hygiene among healthcare personnel, routine environmental disinfection with an agent active against C. diff, and single patient rooms—were likely responsible for the low transmission rate,” the UM news story noted.

One expert not involved with the study suggested that hospitals’ use of antibiotics may be a factor in causing C. diff carriers to develop infections.

“These findings suggest that while we should continue our current infection prevention strategies, attention should also be given to identifying the individuals who are asymptomatic carriers and finding ways to reduce their risk of developing an infection, like carefully optimizing antibiotic usage and recognizing other risk factors,” Hannah Newman, Senior Director of Infection Prevention at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told HealthDay.

Snitkin, however, told HealthDay that other factors are likely at play. “There is support for antibiotic disruption of the microbiota being one type of trigger event, but there is certainly more to it than that, as not every patient who carries C. diff and receives antibiotics will develop an infection.”

Another expert not involved with the study told HealthDay that “many patients are already colonized,” especially older ones or those who have been previously hospitalized.

“A lot of their normal flora in their GI tract can be altered either through surgery or antibiotics or some other mechanism, and then symptoms occur, and that’s when they are treated with antibiotics,” said Donna Armellino, RN, Senior VP of Infection Prevention at Northwell Health in Manhasset, New York.

Whatever is taking place, hospital-acquired infections kill thousands of people every years. It’s on the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) “never event” list of hospital-acquired conditions (HOC) that should never happen to hospital patients. This affects reimbursement to hospitals for treatment of infections under Medicare’s Hospital-Acquired Condition Reduction Program

This research also demonstrates the value of faster, cheaper, more accurate gene sequencing for researching life-threatening conditions. Microbiologists, Clinical laboratory scientists, and pathologists will want monitor further developments involving these findings as researchers from University of Michigan and Rush University Medical Center continue to learn more about the source of C. diff infections.

—Stephen Beale

Related Information:

The Surprising Origin of a Deadly Hospital Infection

Patient-to-Patient Transmission Not to Blame for Most C. Difficile Infections in Hospitals

Longitudinal Genomic Surveillance of Carriage and Transmission of Clostridioides difficile in an Intensive Care Unit

Millions of COVID-19 At-Home Tests Set to Flood Market as HHS Asks 12 Test Manufacturers to Produce 200 Million Tests

Free at home clinical-laboratory testing for COVID-19 has been provided in the past, but this time the federal government wants to manufacture as many tests as possible in the US

Pathologists and clinical laboratory managers may be interested to learn that the US market is about to be flooded with millions of at-home COVID-19 rapid tests. The federal government has contracted with 12 US-based test manufacturers to produce 200 million at-home self-tests aimed at detecting “currently circulating COVID-19 variants” through the end of this year, according to a US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) news release.

Through the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response (ASPR), HHS is investing $600 million to fund the self-tests, which are available for delivery through a reopening of the COVID.Gov/Test website.

Federal officials want to head off “supply chain issues” that developed in the past with reliance on tests made overseas, and to address a possible COVID-19 surge during the fall and winter, the Associated Press (AP) reported.

In fact, 500 million tests have already been distributed through US government channels to long-term care facilities, schools, and low-income senior housing.

Dawn O’Connell, JD

“Manufacturing COVID-19 tests in the United States strengthens our preparedness for the upcoming fall and winter seasons, reduces our reliance on other countries, and provides good jobs to hardworking Americans,” said Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dawn O’Connell, JD (above), in an HHS news release. “ASPR’s investments in these domestic manufacturers will increase availability of tests in the future.” With the federal government preparing for what it expects to be a surge in demand for COVID-19 testing, clinical laboratories may want to track the CDC’s weekly reports on the number of positive COVID-19 cases as this year’s influenza season progresses. (Photo copyright: Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response.)

In Vitro Diagnostics Test Makers Get Government Gigs

This is not the first time federal officials sent out free COVID-19 tests to consumers. According to the AP, more than 755 million tests went out to US households in previous efforts to fight the spread of infections. But unlike those tests, these tests will be manufactured entirely within the US.

The government’s latest wave of free tests is meant to “complement ASPR’s ongoing distribution of free COVID-19 tests to long-term care facilities, low-income senior housing, uninsured individuals, and underserved communities, with 500 million tests provided to date through these channels,” the HHS news release noted.  

Both large and lesser-known in vitro diagnostics (IVD) manufacturers were selected by the federal government to receive funding. They include:

HHS advises people to take the test at the first sign of symptoms (fever, sore throat, runny nose, others), after coming into contact someone who has COVID-19, or prior to gathering with a group, as a preventative to spread of the coronavirus.

Tracking New BA.2.86 COVID Variant

Currently, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is tracking BA.2.86 (aka, Pirola), a new SARS-CoV-2 variant.

According to CDC’s latest Respiratory Viruses Update:

  • Reporting laboratories say existing antibodies work against the BA.2.86 variant.
  • The variant does not appear to be linked in the US with increasing infections or hospitalizations.
  • It is “unclear how easily BA.2.86 spreads” relative to other variants.
  • BA.2.86 has been detected in nine states: Colorado, Delaware, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, and in wastewater in New York and Ohio, as well as in other countries. 

For week ending Sept. 23, the CDC reported the following statistics compared to the prior week:

  • 19,079 COVID-19 hospitalizations, down 3.1%.
  • Total hospitalizations: 6.3 million.
  • 2.7% of total deaths were due to COVID-19, up 8%.
  • COVID-19 test positivity rate was 11.6%, down 1.1%.
  • 1.8% of emergency department visits were diagnosed with COVID-19, down 11.7%.

According to Verywell Health, BA.2.86 carries more than 30 mutations.  

“Even with a lot of mutations, there are a lot of spots in the virus that can be recognized by our immune system, and there are many shared mutations as well. There will be some protection from new vaccine booster as well as prior infections,” Rajendram Rajnarayanan, PhD, Assistant Dean of Research and Associate Professor, Basic Sciences, Arkansas State University, told Verywell Health.

During an online media briefing conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO), Maria Van Kerkhove, PhD, COVID-19 Technical Lead at WHO, said that the variant could be classified by WHO as a “variant of concern” in the event of widespread circulation. 

COVID-19, an Endemic Disease?

It’s worth noting that the common cold, influenza, SARS, and SARS-CoV-2 are all in the coronavirus family, and thus closely related with similar symptoms. It would not be a surprise that SARS-CoV-2 joins those other viruses as an endemic virus with a similar yearly cycle of infection rates.

If that happens, and no surge in infections appears that would motivate orders for the new COVID-19 at-home tests, the government may find itself with a lot of unused tests at the end of the year. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is aware of this possibility and provides a website where people can check to see if their test has an extended expiration date.

Plus, folks who are tired of the pandemic may not respond at all to the government’s insistence to prepare for possible surges in infection rates.

“Whether or not people are done with it, we know the virus is there, we know that it’s circulating. We know, if past is prologue, it’ll circulate to a higher degree and spread, and cases will go up in the fall and winter seasons,” said Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dawn O’Connell, JD, in the HHS new release. “Anticipating that that would be true again, or something similar, we want to make sure the American people have these tools.”

Clinical laboratories may want to prepare as well. Many people are not comfortable with at-home self-testing and prefer to have their local medical labs perform the tests.

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

Biden-Harris Administration Awards $600 Million to Bolster US Manufacturing of COVID-19 Tests and Announces the Re-Opening of COVIDTests.gov

Biden Administration Announces $600 Million to Produce COVID-19 Tests and Will Reopen Website to Order Them

Free COVID Testing Will Fade with US Health Emergency in May

CDC’s COVID-19 Variant Update

CDC’s COVID-19 Data Tracker

Why B.2.86 Stands Out from Other COVID-19 Variants

CDC Issues New Guidelines to Optimize Hospital Sepsis Programs and Save Lives

Clinical laboratory leaders may be aware that many hospitals still do not have capabilities to make a timely diagnosis of sepsis

Despite the fact that “one in three people who dies in a hospital had sepsis during that hospitalization,” recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that many hospitals in the US lack the resources to identify sepsis and begin treatment as soon as possible, CNN reported.

According to the CDC, 1.7 million Americans develop sepsis annually. And of that group, at least 350,000 adults die in hospitals or hospice care centers. Clinical laboratories tasked with performing the plethora of tests needed to diagnose sepsis will agree that it is one of the gravest healthcare dangers patients face.

To address this potentially deadly threat, the CDC developed the “Hospital Sepsis Program Core Elements: 2023” to support the implementation of sepsis protocols at all hospitals, to optimize any existing sepsis programs, and to organize staff and identify resources to lower sepsis rates and raise survivability.

“Modeled after CDC’s Core Elements of Antibiotic Stewardship, which has proven to be an impactful resource to protect patients from the harms caused by unnecessary antibiotic use and to combat antimicrobial resistance, the Sepsis Core Elements were created with the expectation that all hospitals, regardless of size and location, would benefit from this resource,” a CDC press release noted.

Raymund Dantes, MD

“CDC’s Hospital Sepsis Program Core Elements are a guide for structuring sepsis programs that put your healthcare providers in the best position to rapidly identify and provide effective care for all types of patients with sepsis,” said Raymund Dantes, MD (above), Medical Advisor, National Healthcare Safety Network, CDC, and Associate Professor, Emory University School of Medicine, in a CDC press release. Hospital medical laboratories will play a key role in the success of the CDC’s sepsis program. (Photo copyright: Emory School of Medicine.)

Seven Elements to Improve Sepsis Diagnosis

Sepsis can occur when chemicals released into the bloodstream to fight off an infection produce massive inflammation throughout the body. This potentially fatal reaction can cause a deluge of changes within the body that damage multiple organs, leading them to fail.

The CDC designed its hospital sepsis program to improve and monitor the management and outcomes of patients with sepsis. The core elements of the program include seven main points:

  • Hospital Leadership Commitment: Management must dedicate the necessary staff, financial, and information technology resources.
  • Accountability: Appoint a team responsible for program goals and outcomes.
  • Multi-professional Expertise: Make sure key personnel throughout the healthcare system are engaged in the program.
  • Action: Implement structures and processes to improve the identification of the illness and patient outcomes.
  • Tracking: Develop initiatives to measure sepsis epidemiology, management, overall outcomes, and progress towards established goals.
  • Reporting: Provide information on sepsis management and outcomes to relevant partners.
  • Education: Provide healthcare professionals, patients, and family/caregivers with information on sepsis.

“Sepsis is taking too many lives. One in three people who dies in a hospital has sepsis during that hospitalization. Rapid diagnosis and immediate appropriate treatment, including antibiotics, are essential to saving lives, yet the challenges of awareness about and recognition of sepsis are enormous,” said CDC Director Mandy Cohen, MD, in the CDC press release. “That’s why CDC is calling on all US hospitals to have a sepsis program and raise the bar on sepsis care by incorporating these seven core elements.”

Early Diagnosis Presents Challenges

Sepsis care is complex. The condition requires urgent medical intervention to prevent organ damage and death. But the symptoms, which include fever or low temperature, shivering, confusion, breathing difficulties, extreme body pain or discomfort, high heart rate, weak pulse or low blood pressure, and low urine output, can be general and indicative of other illnesses.

The diagnosis of sepsis usually requires the collection of a blood culture specimen that is then incubated until there is enough bacterial growth to identify the specific strains of bacteria in a particular patient. This process can take several days, which can delay the administering of the most effective treatment for the condition. Treatment usually includes antibiotics and intravenous fluids.

A recent CDC survey of 5,221 US hospitals showed that in 2022, only 73% of hospitals reported having a sepsis program, ranging from 53% among hospitals with less than 25 beds to 95% among hospitals with over 500 beds.

That survey, released in the CDC’s August Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), also discovered that only 55% of all hospitals had personnel with dedicated time to manage and conduct necessary daily activities for a sepsis program. 

Raymund Dantes, MD, Medical Advisor, National Healthcare Safety Network, CDC, and Associate Professor, Emory University School of Medicine, told CNN that as many as 1,400 hospitals have no sepsis program in place at all. Therefore, he added, the CDC’s Hospital Sepsis Program Core Elements documents also include a “getting started guide” to help those hospitals create the needed committees.

“For those hospitals that already have sepsis programs underway and have available resources, we have a lot more details and best practices that we’ve collected from hospitals about how to better improve your sepsis programs,” he said. “The seven elements complement clinical guidelines by describing the leadership, expertise, tracking, education, and other elements that can be implemented in a wide variety of hospitals to improve the quality of sepsis care.” 

Hospital Laboratories Play a Key Role in Reducing Sepsis

According to the CDC, anyone can get an infection and almost any infection can lead to sepsis. However, some populations are more vulnerable to sepsis than others. They include:

  • Older persons
  • Pregnant or recently pregnant women
  • Neonates
  • Hospitalized Patients
  • Patients in Intensive Care Units
  • People with weakened immune systems
  • People with chronic medical conditions

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there were 48.9 million sepsis cases and 11 million sepsis-related deaths worldwide in 2017. This number accounted for almost 20% of all global deaths. Almost half of all the global sepsis cases occurred in children, resulting in 2.9 million deaths in children under the age of five. 

“Sepsis is complex, often difficult to identify, and takes a tremendous societal toll in the United States,” said Steven Simpson, MD, Professor of Medicine at the University of Kansas and Chair, Board of Directors, Sepsis Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness and reducing suffering from sepsis, in a press release. “To tackle the number one killer in American hospitals, we need a comprehensive National Action Plan to find cures, get them in the hands of professionals, and educate the public and professionals alike.”

Hospital medical laboratories can help reduce sepsis by finding ways to support their physicians’ diagnoses of this infection that has taken so many lives.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

CDC Launches Effort to Bolster Hospital Sepsis Programs

Hospital Sepsis Program Core Elements: 2023

CDC: What is Sepsis?

Sepsis Program Activities in Acute Care Hospitals—National Healthcare Safety Network, United States, 2022

Sepsis Nearly Killed Me. This is What it was Like.

Hospital Sepsis Program Core Elements

CDC Launches New Effort Aimed at Strengthening Survival and Recovery Rates for All Sepsis Patients

Sepsis: The Deadly Disease You Might Not Be Familiar With

Sepsis Alliance Reinforces Call for National Sepsis Action Plan as Awareness of the Term Sepsis Dips to 63%

Sepsis Alliance Calls on Biden-Harris Administration for a National Sepsis Action Plan

Hospitals Worldwide Are Deploying Artificial Intelligence and Predictive Analytics Systems for Early Detection of Sepsis in a Trend That Could Help Clinical Laboratories, Microbiologists

Achieving Faster Sepsis Diagnosis in the Emergency Department: Early Experience with the Monocyte Distribution Width (MDW) Marker and Acceptance by ED and ID Physicians

Italian Scientists Train Dogs to Detect Presence or Absence of COVID-19 in Humans with Remarkable Accuracy

Dogs’ acute sense of smell can even surpass effectiveness of some clinical laboratory testing in detecting certain diseases in humans

When it comes to COVID-19 testing, a recent Italian study demonstrates that trained dogs can detect SARS-CoV-2 with accuracy comparable to rapid molecular tests used in clinical laboratories. The researchers wanted to determine if dogs could be more effective at screening people for COVID-19 at airports, schools, and other high-traffic environments as a way to detect the coronavirus and reduce the spread of this infectious disease.

Scientists at the State University of Milan in Italy conducted a study that shows dogs can be trained to accurately identify the presence of the COVID-19 infection from both biological samples and by simply smelling an individual. 

For their validation study, the Italian team trained three dogs named Nala, Otto, and Helix, “to detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in sweat samples from infected people. At the end of the training, the dogs achieved an average sensitivity of 93% and a specificity of 99%, showing a level of accuracy highly consistent with that of the RT-PCR [reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction] used in molecular tests and a moderate to strong reproducibility over time,” Nature reported.

RT-PCR tests are the current gold-standard for SARS-CoV-2 detection. This is yet another example of scientists training dogs to smell a disease with “acceptable” accuracy. This time for COVID-19.

The researchers published the results of their study in the journal Scientific Reports titled, “Sniffer Dogs Performance is Stable Over Time in Detecting COVID-19 Positive Samples and Agrees with the Rapid Antigen Test in the Field.” Their findings support the idea that biosensing canines could be used to help reduce the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus in high-risk environments.

Frederica Pirrone, PhD

“We only recruited dogs that showed themselves predisposed and positively motivated to carry out this type of activity. One of the fundamental aspects was not to cause stress or anxiety in the subjects used,” Federica Pirrone, PhD (above), Associate Professor, Department of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Sciences, University of Milan, and one of the authors of the study told Lifegate. “Training always takes place using positive reinforcement of a food nature: whether it’s a particularly appetizing morsel, a biscuit, or something that associates the dog’s search with a rewarding prize.” In some instances, dogs have been shown to be as good or more effective at detecting certain diseases than clinical laboratory testing. (Photo copyright: Facebook.)

Dogs More Accurate than Rapid Antigen Testing

Nala and four other dogs (Nim, Hope, Iris and Chaos) were later trained by canine technicians from Medical Detection Dogs Italy (MDDI) to identify the existence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus by directly smelling people waiting in line in pharmacies to get a nasal swab to test for the coronavirus.

Working with their handlers, the five dogs accurately signaled the presence or absence of the virus with 89% sensitivity and 95% specificity. That rate is “well above the minimum required by the WHO [World Health Organization] for rapid swabs for SARS-CoV-2,” according to Nature.

“The results of studies published so far on the accuracy of canine smell in detecting the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in biological samples (e.g., saliva, sweat, urine, trachea-bronchial secretions) from infected people suggest that sniffer dogs might reach percentages of sensitivity and specificity comparable to, or perhaps even higher, than those of RT-PCR,” the scientists wrote in Scientific Reports.

“However, although most of these studies are of good quality, none of them provided scientific validation of canine scent detection, despite this being an important requirement in the chemical analysis practice. Therefore, further applied research in this field is absolutely justified to provide definitive validation of this biodetection method,” the researchers concluded.

Other Studies into Using Dogs for Detecting Disease

In a similar study published in the journal Frontiers in Medicine titled, “Dogs Detecting COVID-19 from Sweat and Saliva of Positive People: A Field Experience in Mexico,” researchers found that dogs could be trained to detect the presence or absence of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus from human sweat and saliva samples. 

Scientists from the Division of Biological and Health Sciences, Department of Agriculture and Livestock at the University of Sonora; and the Canine Training Center Obi-K19, both in Hermosillo, Mexico, conducted the study “as part of a Frontiers of Science Project of the National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT), in which in addition to analyzing sweat compounds, trained dogs are put to sniff the samples and make detections in people who show symptoms or could be positive for coronavirus,” Mexico Daily Post reported.

The researchers trained four dogs with sweat samples and three dogs with saliva samples of COVID-19 positive patients. The samples were obtained from a health center located in Hermosillo, Sonora, in Mexico. The dogs were restricted to spend five minutes per patient and the researchers calculated the performance of the dogs by measuring sensitivity, specificity, and their 95% confidence intervals (CI).

The researchers concluded that all four of the dogs could detect COVID-19 from either sweat or saliva samples “with sensitivity and specificity rates significantly different from random [sampling] in the field.” According to the Frontiers in Medicine study, the researchers found their results promising because, they said, it is reasonable to expect the detection rate would improve with longer exposure to the samples.  

The objective of the Mexican researchers is for the dogs to ultimately reach the sensitivity range requested by WHO for the performance of an antigen test, which is at least 80% sensitivity and 97% specificity. If that goal is achieved, dogs could become important partners in the control of the COVID-19 pandemic, the scientists wrote. 

In “German Scientists Train Dogs to Detect the Presence of COVID-19 in Saliva Samples; Can a Canine’s Nose Be as Accurate as Clinical Laboratory Testing?Dark Daily reported on a pilot study conducted by researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover (TiHo), the Hannover Medical School, and the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf involving eight specialized sniffer dogs from the Bundeswehr (German armed forces) to determine if the dogs could find people infected with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. After only one week of training, the dogs were able to accurately detect the presence of the COVID-19 infection 94% of the time.

And in “New Study Shows Dogs Can be Trained to Sniff Out Presence of Prostate Cancer in Urine Samples,” we covered how scientists from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, University of Texas, Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and others, had conducted a pilot study that demonstrated dogs could identify prostate samples containing cancer and discern between cancer positive and cancer negative samples.

Data obtained so far from these studies indicate that biosensing dogs may represent an effective method of screening for COVID-19 as well as other diseases. More studies and clinical trials are needed before the widespread use of dogs might become feasible. Nevertheless, scientists all over the world are finding that Man’s best friend can be a powerful ally in the fight against the spread of deadly diseases.

In the meantime, the gold standard in COVID-19 testing will continue to be the FDA-cleared assays used by clinical laboratories throughout the United States.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

Sniffer Dogs Performance is Stable Over Time in Detecting COVID-19 Positive Samples and Agrees with the Rapid Antigen Test in the Field

COVID: Goodbye Swabs, the Dogs Will Sniff It

There Are Dogs That Are Able to “Sniff Out” Diseases

Antigen-detection in the Diagnosis of SARS-CoV-2 Infection

Dogs Detecting COVID-19 from Sweat and Saliva of Positive People: A Field Experience in Mexico

German Scientists Train Dogs to Detect the Presence of COVID-19 in Saliva Samples; Can a Canine’s Nose Be as Accurate as Clinical Laboratory Testing?

New Study Shows Dogs Can Be Trained to Sniff Out Presence of Prostate Cancer in Urine Samples

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