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NICE recommends AI technology for radiotherapy treatment planning

Artificial intelligence (AI) technologies could be used to speed up contouring in radiotherapy treatment planning, according to draft guidance from NICE. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) technologies could be used to speed up contouring in radiotherapy treatment planning, according to draft guidance from NICE.

This is the first piece of NICE guidance to recommend the use of AI to aid healthcare professionals in their roles.

Nine AI technologies have been recommended to help speed up the time it takes to produce “contours” or outlines of the healthy organs so that the cancer is targeted while nearby healthy cells are avoided.

At present following a CT or MRI scan, a radiographer would mark up, or contour, an image by hand to highlight organs at risk of radiation damage, lymph nodes and the site of the cancer. The dose of radiotherapy is calculated to target the tumour site but also to prevent organs and healthy tissue from being damaged.

Evidence seen by NICE’s independent medical technologies advisory committee suggests that AI technologies generally produce similar quality contours of organs at risk as those carried out manually, with most only needing minor edits.

All contours created by AI must still be reviewed by a trained healthcare professional and edited as needed before being used in radiotherapy treatment planning.

Radiotherapy treatment planning and AI

Early evidence suggests that using AI is quicker than manual contouring even when including time for healthcare professional review and edits, with an estimated time saving of three minutes to 80 minutes per plan depending on the amount of editing needed.

This could save money and may allow healthcare professionals to spend more time with patients or concentrate on complex cases when using AI is not appropriate. However, more evidence will be generated to further check that these time savings are realised in practice.

Sarah Byron, programme director for health technologies at NICE, said: “NHS colleagues working on the front line in radiotherapy departments are under severe pressure with thousands of people waiting for scans.

“The role imaging plays in radiotherapy treatment planning is quite pivotal, so recommending the use of AI technologies to help support treatment planning alongside clinical oversight by a trained healthcare professional could save both time and money.

“These technologies could decrease the time required to complete a plan so they are able to use their expertise planning the most complex of cases of radiotherapy or free up time to deal with other patient-facing tasks.”

Technology costs ranged from £4 to £50 per plan and included software and other associated costs including healthcare professional training.

The possible resource benefits calculated by NICE shows that if the lowest time saving of three minutes per plan is assumed and 75,000 plans are generated using AI auto-contouring the time saved would be 3,750 hours. This would increase to 52,500 hours for 75,000 plans and a medium time saving of 42 minutes being assumed. At the higher end of the scale, 100,000 hours would be saved for 75,000 plans and a time saving of 80 minutes per plan being assumed.

Due to a lack of robust data on current practice and other variables such as the costs and time involved, more evidence needs to be generated over the next three years so a full cost/benefit analysis can be carried out by NICE.

A consultation on the recommendations have now begun via and comments must be submitted by Friday 25 August 2023.

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