We may associate X-rays with broken bones rather than viral infections, but a consultant radiologist has revealed the vital role radiology is playing in the fight against coronavirus.

Dr Rizwan Malik told The Bolton News how Royal Bolton Hospital is using artificial intelligence (AI) alongside chest X-rays to diagnose and monitor covid-19 infections.

The technology enables doctors to make quicker decisions regarding treatment and closely observe the progression of the disease. The Bolton NHS Foundation Trust is the first in the UK to use the advanced diagnostic software, produced by Qure.ai.

Dr Rizwan Malik said: “The AI allows decisions to be made more quickly and more safely, it’s another layer of information to use when deciding on the appropriate treatment.

“It gives us an objective way at assessing how much the lung has been damaged and shows us other different abnormalities, and where they are.

“The AI can give us an indication of the risk of covid-19, which is either low, medium or high and what percentage of the lung is affected.

“We can check with follow up X-rays to see if the condition is getting better or worse. The risk could change from medium to high or low to medium. X-rays are used during the whole pathway of the treatment for the condition.

“The AI allows doctors to make quicker decisions, it doesn’t replace what the doctor does, it supports the decision that they make.

"With coronavirus there’s no one magic bullet which gives us a yes or a no, even swab tests can come back with different results.

“Some people may have symptoms of a chest infection or just lose their sense of smell; some could have a normal chest X-ray. This technology helps the doctor to make a diagnosis faster.

“A blood test or a swab doesn’t show how coronavirus is affecting the lungs. Predominantly this is why we use X-rays to assess the damage in the lungs; they are the workhorse in coronavirus assessment.

“In the normal state of affairs the doctor will look at the image and then the radiologist will give a report. Now the doctor looks at the X-ray and at the same time has the advantage of the AI opinion, it’s almost like a phone a friend scenario. The AI runs on a server on the hospital computers and automatically scans the X-rays. So by the time it’s on the screen for the doctor the AI has checked it."

“By having the AI there, it allows the doctor to make an informed decision immediately. “

AI technology is already being used in other parts of the world for diagnosing conditions such as tuberculosis. It can also be put to use to detect cancers and pneumonia by adjusting the algorithm, meaning it can be used after the pandemic.

The important role radiology has in the pandemic, along with this technological advancement, has helped motivate Dr Malik and his colleagues in the department.

He said: “What we’ve found across the whole sector is that everyone is seeing these terrible images around the world and that is creating this common desire to do the right thing for our patients and what is best for our families.

“Being able to do that is reassuring. We are involved in the patient’s treatment and we are trying very hard to make sure they are getting the right care.

“We have wanted to look at AI for some time and this has allowed us to do that much more quickly. It is a valuable member of our team and really helps us tackle this global pandemic.”