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Friday, April 23, 1999 Published at 02:48 GMT 03:48 UK


Computer could cut smear errors

Computer techniques could make smear analysis more accurate

A semi-automated computer system developed to analyse cervical smears could decrease numbers of screening errors and improve productivity, researchers say.

Cervical smears are currently examined under the microscope by eye.

The job is highly skilled but is prone to false-negative and false-positive results, even with quality-control measures and further assessments by senior scientific and medical staff.

An automated system called PAPNET uses artificial intelligence to identify abnormal smears and check negative slides.

Researchers tested how the system performed when it was used to carry out the first analysis of cervical smears not previously checked by the human eye.

Techniques compared

[ image: Smears are first analysed under the microscope at present]
Smears are first analysed under the microscope at present
Writing in the medical journal The Lancet, the researchers describe how 21,700 cervical smears from five centres in the UK were analysed by PAPNET-assisted screening and conventional microscopic screening to compare the two methods.

Smears were classified as inadequate, negative, mild, moderate or severe, with or without borderline cell changes.

To check the results, 2,906 abnormal smears and 298 negative smears were sent for further independent review.

Overall, the two methods showed agreement in results for about 90% of all smears classified as adequate for reporting.

PAPNET-assisted screening was, however, significantly better than conventional screening for correct identification of negative smears.

The time taken to screen and report the results of smears was much shorter with PAPNET-assisted screening than with conventional screening.

The researchers conclude: "Use of PAPNET-assisted screening could increase quality and productivity.

"We recommend carefully organised and controlled development projects for the introduction of PAPNET-assisted primary screening of cervical smears."

Commercial doubts

However, financial problems have put a question mark over the future of PAPNET.

The National Screening Programme issued a statement saying that it could not recommend investment in a new technology unless it was sure it would be available to improve the screening of women in the long term.

The statement said: "The introduction of any new system will make a huge impact on the nature of the screening programme and we have to justify its long term benefit to women.

"A massive amount of time and commitment would have to be invested in the training of staff and production of new quality assurance guidelines.

"We cannot risk such investment without a comprehensive guarantee from the manufacturer."

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