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USQ to lead national project to bridge critical health gap

Can artificial intelligence help us understand transmissible infections better?
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As people the world over become accepting of testing regimes required to diagnose, monitor, and assess outbreaks of the COVID-19, researchers from the University of Southern Queensland are attempting to change the way testing for other types of transmissible infections are understood and utilised – using Artificial Intelligence (AI).

A cross-disciplinary research team made up of four USQ experts and an expert colleague from The University of Queensland have been awarded a $500,000 competitive research grant from the Australian Government as part of its First National Blood Borne Viruses and Sexually Transmissible Infections Research Strategy 2021 – 2025.

The grant will support the development of a mobile app, supported by AI, centred around sexual health risk behaviours, and screening and testing for Sexually Transmissible Infections, or STIs.

Dr Zhaohui Tang and Professor Yan Li from USQ’s School of Sciences will lead the project.

“Due to the sensitive nature of STI related data, Australians have frequently reported privacy and confidentiality concerns as one of the main barriers to STI testing and treatment,” Dr Tang said.

“To address this barrier, the research team took an innovative approach to make the AI-based app secure so that participants’ data privacy and confidentiality are guaranteed.

“Our proposed AI model enables a large group of participants to collaboratively build a common and accurate AI model without exchanging sensitive raw data among themselves.

Dr Tang said the app would be linked to patterns of behaviour, demographics, and symptoms with a set of information that relates overarching algorithms and the symptoms the user may be experiencing.

“The key innovation focus is around cyber security and AI in the healthcare domain where intelligence is extremely beneficial, yet security assurance is desperately needed – and we’re working to address that,” she said.

Professor Li said, critically, the project would demonstrate how AI was a driving force for improvements and innovations.

“We’ll apply the newest AI technology to secure cybersecurity and data privacy in this project, which makes it an exciting body of research,” she said.

Fellow research team member Associate Professor Amy Mullens from USQ’s School of Psychology and Counselling said the real time health support and messaging – or ‘nudges’ – from the app could encourage more timely treatment.

“Treatment as prevention and increased testing rates are part of the UNAIDS and WHO’s HIV Initiatives and working with technology to promote early detection and treatment of HIV and other STI’s in a way that’s acceptable to the user and improves health outcomes is critical, as some STI’s become more treatment resistant,” she said.

“Reducing the barriers to testing is so important; it’s an unmet need area in the public health space. This research project addresses the trend that the medicalised model isn’t working in its current condition, among some important priority groups.”

Associate Professor Sonya Osborne from USQ’s School of Nursing and Midwifery said the research team was focused on developing a safe, secure, and sustainable solution that provides the end user with more personalised resources, support, and choices for follow up and self-care.

“The solution has to be able to be scaled up and spread to reach more of the population and this is particularly relevant for those living in regional, rural, and remote areas with limited access to specialist services,” she said.

Dr Judith Dean from School of Public Health at The University of Queensland is also part of the research team.

women standing in classroom
Professor Yan Li, Dr Zhaohui Tang and Associate Professor Sonya Osborne are part of a USQ-led research team attempting to use Artificial Intelligence to inform better outcomes and treatment options for sexually transmissible infections.