In an unprecedented move, Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority has announced the initiation of an artificial intelligence (AI)-driven pilot program to tackle the alarming rise in superbug infections. This initiative arrives amidst a significant increase in the prevalence of vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE) and Candida auris cases in the first three quarters of 2023.
AI to the rescue: A strategic shift
The program, slated to begin in January at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sha Tin and Princess Margaret Hospital in Kwai Chung, marks a pivotal shift in the region’s healthcare strategy. By integrating AI into clinical data analysis, the system will discern the necessity of antibiotics in treatment processes. This AI implementation aims to mitigate the rampant overprescription of antibiotics – a key contributor to the rise in drug-resistant organisms.
The pilot scheme will initially focus on a single antibiotic type, expanding in March to include emergency rooms across 17 public hospitals and eventually encompassing eight different antibiotics.
Understanding the superbug surge
Dr. Raymond Lai Wai-man, the chief infection control officer, has noted a concerning uptick in patients carrying VRE and Candida auris. This rise is partly attributed to the diversion of healthcare resources to combat the COVID-19 pandemic over the past years, resulting in reduced focus on multidrug-resistant organisms (MDROs). The reduction in isolation wards for MDRO-infected patients and the widespread use of broad-spectrum antibiotics for COVID-19 patients are among the factors exacerbating this issue.
While common superbugs have returned to pre-pandemic levels, VRE and Candida auris have shown a worrying increase. VRE’s antibiotic resistance rate has escalated from 0.22% in 2021 to 1.2% in 2023. Similarly, Candida auris cases have risen sharply, with a significant percentage of affected individuals developing invasive infections that pose high mortality risks.
Proactive measures and community awareness
The Hospital Authority is relying on AI, enhancing infection control measures, and conducting screenings for Candida auris among high-risk groups. These steps are crucial in preventing the spread of superbugs in the community. Dr. Lai emphasizes the importance of maintaining personal hygiene and adhering to medical guidelines, especially regarding antibiotic usage, to curb the transmission of these organisms.
The public is advised to practice diligent hand hygiene and avoid sharing personal items in public spaces. Covering wounds and following doctors’ prescriptions strictly are additional measures to prevent infections.
Hong Kong’s healthcare system is at a critical juncture, facing the dual challenges of recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and addressing the escalating threat of superbugs. The integration of AI in clinical decision-making represents a novel approach in this ongoing battle. This initiative aims to streamline the treatment process and foster a more judicious use of antibiotics, thus countering the rise of antibiotic resistance.
As the program unfolds, its effectiveness in controlling the spread of these formidable superbugs will be closely monitored. This approach’s success could serve as a model for other regions grappling with similar healthcare challenges.